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      Starting Out in the Evening Review

      Starting Out in the Evening poster

      Starting Out in the Evening

      Jessica Reaves, Chicago Tribune

      Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is an aging novelist who lives alone in New York City. He spends his day mired in routine, pecking away at his typewriter in a desultory fashion and attended to by his dutiful daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor). One day he's visited by Heather (Lauren Ambrose), a plucky, wildly ambitious graduate student, whose academic and literary success hinges on convincing her hero to talk openly about his life and work. What follows is an intelligent, provocative examination of love, in all its forms, and the kindnesses and cruelties that inevitably emerge from its depths.

      Langella, who is already garnering Oscar buzz for his turn as Leonard, is mesmerizing as a man teetering on the edge of obscurity, but whose pride and ego are battling mightily against the abyss. Stubborn and tetchy, Leonard is not a warm and cuddly character; he's got issues, as they say, which he has apparently decided to let fester in the dark recesses of his brain rather than air out to a therapist, like a normal New Yorker.

      Ambrose, who starred in HBO's "Six Feet Under," plays Heather as a slightly unstable go-getter; you never know exactly what she's going to do, or say, and there are plenty of cringe-worthy exchanges between her and the initially recalcitrant Leonard as she coaxes secrets from him, flattering him with her exhaustive readings of his work, disconcerting him with her carefully applied lipstick and strategically bared limbs.

      Meanwhile, Ariel has her own problems; namely, she wants to have a baby, but as luck would have it, she's not in love with the guy who wants to marry her but rather with the guy who keeps breaking her heart, Casey (played with easy charm by Adrian Lester). Lili Taylor (also a "Six Feet Under" alum and always a powerhouse) is luminous as Ariel; her once-breathy delivery has matured into an assured alto. Taylor is a ball of anxious energy bouncing through her scenes - her presence demands more action, less talk.

      Leonard and Heather are another story; their relationship is based on words, written and spoken. Heather, who is supposed to be something of an academic wunderkind, doesn't really impress as a serious intellectual, which may or may not be intentional. Nevertheless, the script, written by director Andrew Wagner and Fred Parnes, boasts moments sharp enough to echo David Mamet's most exquisitely damaging exchanges.

      The movie is based on Brian Morton's 1998 novel of the same name, which was a quiet success. It earned Morton accolades from top critics but fell short of propelling him into the literary spotlight. While the film adaptation shares the novel's stealth appeal - days later, I found myself mulling over scenes - on the whole it's better than the book: sharper, leaner and less sentimental.

      Wagner's vision gives New York City - specifically, the hyper-literate, intellectually predatory corners of Manhattan's Upper West Side - a starring role, and the lovingly shot urban scenery provides a rich backdrop for the human characters, without being either a distraction or a crutch. Thanks to Woody Allen and his many imitators, this New York feels familiar; Wagner's direction and Langella's performance conspire to keep it from being predictable.

      The same can be said for the themes hashed out on the streets and in various coffee shops - filial and romantic love, sexual and emotional jealousy, fear of aging - we've heard it before, and we understand there are no easy resolutions. But because the characters are richly realized and their dialogue rings true, we stick around, rooting for something like a happy ending.

      "Starting Out in the Evening"

      Directed by Andrew Wagner; screenplay by Fred Parnes and Wagner from the novel by Brian Morton; photographed by Harlan Bosmajian; edited by Gena Bleier; music by Adam Gorgoni; production design by Carol Strober; produced by Nancy Israel, Parnes, Wagner, Gary Winick and Jack Abraham. A Roadside Attractions release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, language and brief nudity).

      Leonard - Frank Langella

      Heather - Lauren Ambrose

      Ariel - Lili Taylor

      Casey - Adrian Lester

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