Like old soldiers, old authors never die, they just fade away, often well before they're through writing. And in today's publishing climate, where celebrity bios and self-help tomes hog all the shelf space, they fade away even faster. Author Brian Morton, not quite old yet, built a novel around that sad fact, the opposite of a page-turner - a "literary novel," which is how we distinguish novels that people aren't likely to buy or read from those that involve boy wizards. And against all odds, Morton's delicately shaded novel has been turned into a film. Starting Out in the Evening stars Frank Langella as Leonard Schiller, an aging literary lion who's lost his roar. He was once a name, now the name's harder to place. As dedicated as ever to the craft of writing, Leonard made the mistake of getting old.
Then youth rears its lovely head in the form of Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a grad student who hopes to use her master's thesis both to fan the flames of Leonard's dying reputation and to jumpstart her own career. As her name implies, Heather combines a natural tendency toward truth and sincerity with a she-wolf's cunning. And it's no time before she's insinuated herself into Leonard's quiet, Upper East Side life. But what exactly are these two up to? What are they doing to each other? For each other? With each other? During their first meeting, Heather impulsively (or has she planned it all along?) grabs Leonard's hand and kisses it. Soon they're in bed together, a strangely tender love scene in which neither of them removes any clothes. What's going on?
To his credit, Morton never completely answers that question. And neither does Andrew Wagner's movie version, which remains faithful to the spirit of Morton's novel while cutting and pasting where need be. Morton uses a shifting point of view, so that we learn as much about Leonard from what Heather thinks about him as we do from what he thinks about himself. Wagner can't resort to such literary devices, of course, so he relies on his actors, who speak volumes with their faces alone. Ambrose, slimmed down from her days on Six Feet Under, has big brown eyes, bright red lips and the cheeks of a squirrel that's packed away nuts for the winter. And without losing the character in a blur of mixed motives, she does a good job of keeping us guessing as to exactly what's going on behind that teacher's-pet demeanor.
Langella's role is less tricky - a frail old man, monkish in his habits, who feels a stirring in his loins for the first time in years. But you have to admire the way both Langella and Leonard dole out emotion, holding plenty in reserve for when it comes time to work up one final roar. (Heather, on the other hand, applies her emotions like makeup.) Langella's more virile than the man described in Morton's novel, but he uses his mass and weight to suggest someone whose work and life have acquired too much gravity over the decades, too much dignity. Lili Taylor plays Leonard's daughter Ariel, a sad little sprite whose life still hasn't begun at 40. And although she doesn't leave much of an impression on us, Ariel does let us know what it must have been like to grow up with a man who puts on a suit and tie to go to the bathroom.
But will a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed lit-critter snap Leonard out of his years-long hibernation? You'll have to see the movie to find out. Or read the book, of course.