Starting Out in the Evening Reviews
This is all fascinating stuff, and since it is embodied in yet another wonderful performance by Frank Langella, you'd think that this would be a sure fire hit. Unfortunately the script veers into a very unsatisfactory second theme involving the uneven acting of Lili Taylor as Langella's 40 year old daughter, who hears her biological clock chiming midnight.
I suppose that this secondary theme shows the effects of father on daughter and juxtaposes life versus the escapism Langella has perfected, but really, I feel that all things are thusly connected and in this case the secondary story line detracts rather than augments - kind of like a very weak Greek Chorus in its attempts to bring the core drama more into focus.
Essentially the main story (the one worth watching) deals with a grad student (capably portrayed by Lauren Ambrose) who is writing her thesis on Langella, a former literary giant in the twilight of his career. His early scribbles led to a cathartic experience for Ambrose, who now reveres the ground the "great man" walks on - which adds an odd, yet somehow compelling bit of Lolita and a May/December romance that makes Langella begin to question everything, including the characters and plot ark of the novel he has been working on for 10 years.
There are some great truths here, and Langella is superb - totally raw beneath the veneer of his intellectual civility; and yet, somehow the entire enterprise seemed derailed by the daughters' tale. It was almost like watching two different films on two screens. One held a pretty tight narrative, with some wonderful insight, that seemed very organic, while the other was full of overly obvious setups and some badly delivered, preachy dialog.
At the film's close you simply see a man at his typewriter - starting over on an enterprise he knows he will probably never finish - and yet, since the act of writing defines who and what he is, he follows that instinct, just as a salmon will return to its spawning ground - whether he has anything new to say at this juncture is left to speculation - but regardless, write he must.
Frank Langella is phenomenal in the lead role of this tightly constructed and intelligently written drama. He lets us know Leonard Schiller in little gestures like his reflexive withdraw from Heather's kiss on his hand and some of his more impulsive actions in the third act. The character's deep pain comes through Langella's reserved exterior, and the script gives us subtle moments like his prodding of Casey about "compromise." Lauren Ambrose is almost up to the task of keeping up with Langella, but it's Lili Taylor who truly rises to the challenge as this father/daughter relationship is one of the most believable I've seen on screen in a while.
The film's theme focuses on what we give up to remain sane in our relationships -- all our relationships, with each other, with our work, with our hopes for the future -- and how time is the constant antagonist.
I thought the film's pace slowed down in the second act, and Schiller's attraction to Heather was never fully clear. Is this a sexual relationship in the fullest sense of the word, or is it intellectual with occasional sexual trappings? And why does Heather react as she does in the third act?
Overall, this film is worth seeing for Langella and for the opportunity to see an intelligent film about intelligent people, which is a rarity in this age.