Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Starting Out In The Evening

After years of playing the most evil of villains (notably - or least notably - Skeletor in the Masters of the Universe live action bomb), Frank Langella has mellowed in his senior years, portraying Bill Paley as a wise boss in Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck, and having a bit of fun as Perry White in last year's Superman Returns. But this year, Langella takes it a step further, playing an aging New York professor and obscure novelist, Leonard Schiller, in Andrew Wagner's Starting Out in the Evening. Despite the fact that Schiller is a rather distant, removed, introverted type, he is naturally the most warm, inviting, and friendly character that Langella has possibly ever played. He is certainly the first sympathetic character that Langella has ever played - but that usually comes with the territory of the lead role, something Langella has never had the privilege of playing often.
The story: Langella's Schiller is surrounded by two women, one stronger than she should be, and one weaker than she should be. The former is grad student Heather Wolf (uncreative last name) played by Lauren Ambrose, an obsessive fan of Schiller's, seeking to write her master thesis on him. The latter is Schiller's daughter Ariel, played exceptionally by Lili Taylor. Ariel finds herself her father's primary caretaker, and as both she and her father come to grips with the ramifications of their respective ages, there is the requisite bit of family drama. Heather only complicates matters.
The script is eventually predictable, and the film score is atrociously melodramatic, but this is an actor's movie, and the three leads make the most mileage out of it. Indie New York is Taylor's stock-in-trade and she only gets better and better. Like Langella, she is playing against type by playing a rather conventional person in a rather conventional setting, and it makes her flex her chops all the more. Ambrose at first comes off insincere and creepy but then it is quickly apparent that is her character, and she's playing it as she should. The unease, the tension, of her presence around Leonard and Ariel, is the grease of the film, and she makes it work.

Above all, there is Langella. He transitions into Leonard with ease and grace, and he elicits the emotions of an old man accepting he's old with a combination of austerity and affability. You don't want Leonard to be bothered by Heather, but after Langella's done, you hope that Salinger and Pynchon are this pleasant.

It remains to be seen if there will be Oscar buzz for Langella for this role. It is more likely that he will garner a nomination for his work next year when he returns to playing pure evil, an evil more evil than Skeletor...Richard Nixon.



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