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Friday, December 14, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Poignant, intimate "Starting Out in the Evening"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Starting Out in the Evening," with Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Adrian Lester. Directed by Andrew Wagner, from a screenplay by Wagner and Fred Parnes, based on the novel by Brian Morton. 111 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and brief nudity. Harvard Exit, Lincoln Square.

Midway through Andrew Wagner's sensitive character study "Starting Out in the Evening," there's a moment that's subtle yet startlingly poignant, showing what actors can do with the space between words. A man in his 70s and a woman in her 20s sit at a restaurant table; the two are, the man thinks, possibly a couple. A waiter comes to the table and offers drinks; she, before the older man can order a bottle of wine, chooses a beer, bantering lightly with the young waiter as she does so. The older man's face, watching the younger people's brief connection from what seems like a great distance, fades into sadness almost imperceptibly as we watch; it's as if, just at that moment, he's begun to say goodbye.

Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is a novelist, struggling to finish what he knows will be his last novel. A courtly man, he wears a tie and jacket in his tidy New York apartment, the kind of place whose faded, yellowish tones imply a long tenancy. Heather (Lauren Ambrose) is a fawning but fearless graduate student, writing her thesis on Schiller's work; she has red hair, red lipstick and an alarming directness in her beaming gaze. "Your novels set me free," she tells him, speaking of how his books gave her solace in her teenage years. Pleased with her ability to converse literarily (she tells Schiller that he breathes "the same moral air" as Fitzgerald), she talks him into allowing her to conduct a series of interviews with him for her thesis. He's reluctant but flattered, and a strange, not-quite-love-affair evolves.

Based on Brian Morton's novel (though veering somewhat from it, particularly in its second half), "Starting Out in the Evening" is a touching portrait of a man in the twilight of his life. Wagner, whose previous film was the quickly forgotten (and deservedly so) semi-documentary "The Talent Given Us," here shows a remarkable knack with actors, giving them space to let their scenes unfold with a rare naturalness.

Langella, his voice low and quiet, gives a performance that's immaculately restrained and yet heartbreaking; a sudden slap, late in the film, is one of the few hints of this man's simmering resentment of the indignities age has brought him. Ambrose (so good as Claire on the TV series "Six Feet Under") perfectly finds the kind of arrogance in which the very young specialize; she's awed by Schiller even as she condescends to him.

The film loses its impact a bit when it switches to a subplot involving Schiller's 40ish daughter (Lili Taylor) and her on-again-off-again companion (Adrian Lester). Despite Taylor's curly sweetness and Lester's understated likability, these two characters just aren't as compelling as Schiller and Heather, and their world is less vivid than the claustrophobic Manhattan literary circles in which the two main characters reside. But when Langella and Ambrose face off, "Starting Out" becomes a true actors' showcase. It begins and ends on the same note: a close-up of the writer caught in the act of creation. Before him, in an ancient typewriter, lies a page yet unwritten; evening has come, but not yet night.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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