Starting Out in the Evening may very well require the reading of its underlying source material for a fair appreciation of its merits on screen. The film won’t polarize its upscale audiences the way current and equally problematic indie releases I’m Not There or Margot at the Wedding have, because it won’t garner their kind of marketing bucks or initial traffic. Still, for those viewers who venture forth, this effort from Andrew Wagner, whose previous film The Talent Given Us documented his own family, will be either a cup half full or a cup near empty.

As its title might suggest, Starting Out… is a heap of preciousness and pretensions that puts words and literary references to the fore. Perhaps like its failed and forgotten literary writer/hero, the film gives short shrift to so much else that makes art relevant and involving.

For starters, the movie begins as one story, before leaving that hanging as it trails off into another. The plot first introduces a promising thread familiar in other works, including most memorably Donald Margulies’ wonderful play Collected Stories, as elderly, unrecognized writer Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is “rediscovered” by aggressive twenty-something Brown U. grad student Heather (Lauren Ambrose), who insists on building her thesis (a literary biography) around him and gaining entrée to his work and world.

Schiller refuses (he must concentrate on a work-in-progress), but Heather is as pushy and determined as a tabloid reporter. Schiller acquiesces and Heather even goes so far as to invade his privacy, thus setting the stage for what might end up as a May/December romance. Normal mortals might ask: As the forgotten Schiller has left behind him a handful of out-of-print books, what is it about his literary “gifts” that has attracted this ambitious Ivy League shark in the first place?

Carefully watching the Schiller/Heather alliance unfold is the ex-prof’s loyal, ultra-attentive daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), a former dancer turned Pilates instructor. An apple that has fallen a bit far from the tree, she has no literary bent but obsesses with ticking-clock anxiety about bearing a child. Oddly, she pops up with Pop at every turn of the story. Of no help to angst-ridden Ariel is the man she loves, ex-boyfriend Casey (Adrian Lester), who, otherwise a seemingly solid marriage prospect, adamantly rejects fatherhood.

As the dogged Heather probes her reluctant subject, she anticipates resurrecting Schiller’s career by way of bringing forth his many out-of-print opuses and encouraging his long-delayed novel. With Heather taking the usual lead, they have a close encounter in bed, but any resolution to the relationship withers into the dilemma of Ariel’s unresolved motherhood issue.

Also dissipating is the hint that Heather may actually sell her profile of Schiller to The Village Voice. And the film even teases with a supposed shocking secret that amounts to no more than what often happens in marriages.

To fill screen time, the protagonists “come and go” (but not talking about Michelangelo) at various, often lugubrious readings, parties and concerts. To give cred to the film’s literary pretensions, both Heather and Schiller are made fonts of literary references and quotes (D.H. Lawrence, Joan Didion, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Edmund Wilson, et al. ad nauseam), which emerge as more showoff to benefit those behind the screen than endear us to those on the screen.

In spite of Langella’s nice performance, his Schiller is not easy to care about. (Hey, Leonard, if you didn’t take yourself so seriously, maybe you’d sell a few books!) Nor does Taylor’s character appeal. Ambrose’s rapacious Heather is flat-out off-putting and Lester’s Casey gets no chance to grab us either way. The generic-sounding score leads by the hand, and the dialogue—when not bogged down by Heather’s lit-babble—is too often fraught with exposition that should be more cinematically conveyed.

Viewers will praise Langella’s efforts here, although he comes across too young and robust to convince as the withering has-been hero. Some may take comfort in the film’s evocation of the cherished New York that literary, academic and culturally attentive types cherish. Such havens in the film include musty uptown apartments—as rambling as they are drab—and book parties and 92nd Street readings that attract the usual suspects.
Unfortunately, the film—shot digitally and, at least at one press screening, projected in DigiBeta—has that dark, soft video look of years back. Could this have been intentional, considering the retro-bland material that lies between the cinematic covers?