If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, making movies about writing must be like … um … well, something sort of … uh, you know. You know? Gosh, it sure isn’t easy coming up with clever phrases sometimes. Especially when they’re derivative of other people’s clever phrases. And of course, cleverness alone isn’t enough. It also has to be correct. Nope, not easy at all. Never was, never will be. Curse this writing racket!
But of course you didn’t come here for self-indulgent prattle about the agonies of wordsmithery, did you? No, you wanted the wordsmithery itself: in this case, an informed assessment of Starting Out in the Evening. And so far, what have you got? Well, see, now maybe you have a sense of the danger with making movies about writing, too.
Then again, to be fair, this movie isn’t about writing. Oh sure, there are a few scenes of an old guy (Frank Langella) sitting at his typewriter, and getting testy when people intrude on his self-designated work hours. There is expository dialogue in which his being a writer is discussed, and even his process of writing is discussed. He’s on his fifth novel, we learn, which has been in progress for about a decade. He’s sure it’ll be his last. But he doesn’t spend much of the movie actually writing. Which is good, because holy crap, would that be boring to watch.
No, the movie is more about being a writer. In particular, a retiring, Bellow-esque, 70-ish, white, Jewish Manhattanite, who may have been mildly famous once, at least within the white-Jewish-Manhattanite-novelist continuum of fame, but now is receding into obscurity’s twilight. Except—because, well, without an except, it would be insufferably boring to watch—there’s a graduate student (Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose) who wants to write her thesis about him, and by extension, restore his literary reputation. You might further deduce, from the scene in which she dabs honey on his lips and forehead, for instance, that she wants to have a hand in more than his legacy. Or, at the very least, that hers will be an unconventional thesis. (You never know; she went to Brown).
They will try to build a kind of romance from mutual literary enthusiasm. They will learn how fraught such an exercise is, and how ambition and impulsiveness sometimes complicate matters. They’ll do their best to stay on task; she’ll finish her thesis, and he may or may not finish his book. That’s pretty much it.
OK, so, instead of boring, will it be insufferably hackneyed? No, believe it or not, and that’s thanks mostly to Langella and Ambrose, who exchange subtle, humble, controlled performances and achieve a unique and delicate intimacy. The dumbstruck look he gives in response to the aforementioned honey incident, for starters, could be an entire wordless movie unto itself. Also, they have strong, open-hearted support: Lili Taylor as the novelist’s biological-clock-addled daughter, and Adrian Lester as her obdurate old flame—a black man, it so happens, as if by some bashful acknowledgment that the film really, really needed one. Each of these characters has limitations, which their relationships tend to exacerbate, but the shrewdly cast actors inhabit them with apparently limitless compassion.
Starting Out in the Evening, which director Andrew Wagner adapted with Fred Parnes from Brian Morton’s novel, seems partial to framing its drama with potential clichés and then niftily felling them. It requires some patience, but repays it by ultimately avoiding both movie-of-the-week melodrama and fringy chamber-play histrionics. It may be prone to disproportionate praise (or burial) from critics whose empathies and anxieties of literary obsolescence it tickles. And it may only intend to connect with a small, rarefied audience. But, in spite of Adam Gorgoni’s dreadfully mawkish score always insisting otherwise, it is not a sentimental movie.
Yes, the novel from which it’s drawn gives more evidence of this particular writer’s inner life, and, for that matter, of his actual work. But Wagner knows well enough which medium he’s using here, and why narrative economy and discretion are advised. He and his cast have faith in viewers of post-adolescent disposition who value reading and moviegoing equally, and so he renders his film accordingly, unabashedly bookish. That amounts to a far cry from the baroque solipsism of, say, Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. Instead, Starting Out in the Evening is just a movie about a dignified old white man who writes novels, slowly, on a typewriter. Clever concept.