Curiously starting out in the daytime, Starting Out in the Evening at least gets right down to it; in an efficient diner scene, the basics are quickly established: that Frank Langella is an ailing writer with four books out of print, that Lauren Ambrose is a go-getting grad student writing her master’s thesis on his work, and that they’re about to embark on developing a complex relationship. If only the rest of the film were as crisp as its first scene; instead, it ambles about, not exactly sure of what it’s about or what it wants to say. A potent conflict between an aging writer and his young student is lost amid the clutter, too often undermined by a saccharine score, diminished by dreadful lines like, “maybe the characters in your books have the luxury of grappling with moral issues, but I’m in the real world,” and side-tracked by a worthless subplot involving the rote and lame romance between Langella’s daughter, Lili Taylor, and her boyfriend Adrian Lester. (No disrespect to Taylor as an actress, but plenty of disrespect toward the filmmakers for creating such a whiny and tiresome character.) It’s the sort of sloppy film in which a character looks at a photograph and, for our sake (oh don’t bother!), speaks to it. “Where are you?” Ambrose stupidly asks a photo of a young Langella.
Last year, Langella bowled over New Yorkers, and tourists too I suppose, with his blustering and commanding performance on Broadway as Richard Nixon in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon. His performance here is far more painstakingly dignified and composed, but no less titanic; unfortunately, like his aging, fading character, the surrounding film lacks focus, drive and, most of all, enthusiasm; in effect, his performance goes wasted. Somewhere buried inside Starting Out in the Evening there’s an intelligent and fascinating film about aging, relationships and the artistic process, but for every genuine or cleverly subtle moment there is another that rings twice as false or twice as loud. Its worst crime is that the filmmakers apparently truly believed they could add depth to Langella’s story by telling it parallel to a yawn-inducing tale of an unlikable couple’s fundamental disagreement over whether or not to have children.
If Starting Out in the Evening were much shorter, it would be more easily forgivable; as Nathan Rabin recently wrote, “I always appreciate movies that end after seventy-five or eighty minutes. It’s as if they’re saying ‘Look, we know we aren’t very good. But we won’t take up too much of your time. In fact we’ll let you go fifteen minutes early so you can get on with your busy life.’” With its subplots and strolling pacing, though, Starting Out in the Evening unnecessarily pushes the two hour mark, and what was merely a nuisance of a film becomes, as the running time improbably drags on, aggressively irritating. As Rabin continues, “movies that linger past the two-hour mark are like teachers who keep you after school.”
Most infuriating of all, Starting Out in the Evening seems fully aware of its shortcomings, as it blithely criticizes itself throughout. Lester describes one of Langella’s books as “soft and sentimental…it’s one of those relationship books, two couples and all their problems and all of that, yadda yadda yadda.” Are the filmmakers really so dense that they fail to appreciate that that’s what wrong with their film, or do they think they’re being cheeky while proudly staying above the put-downs? Do they really, I mean really, think their film is better than that? “Following your characters takes time,” Langella says of his writing method; yeah, but it shouldn’t take this long. Finally, Langella laments, “my characters haven’t done anything interesting.” Phew, you could say that again.