A Writer, a Rock Star and a Peacemaker: 'Starting out in the Evening' Quietly Studies a Literary Life; 'I'm Not There' Is a Confusing Look at Bob Dylan

By Cunneen, Joseph; Doherty, Kevin | National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Writer, a Rock Star and a Peacemaker: 'Starting out in the Evening' Quietly Studies a Literary Life; 'I'm Not There' Is a Confusing Look at Bob Dylan


Cunneen, Joseph, Doherty, Kevin, National Catholic Reporter


Starting Out in the Evening is a quiet film that might drop into oblivion except for Frank Langella's masterful performance as Leonard Schiller, an elderly minor novelist whose life seems over. Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a young graduate student from Brown, interrupts his work on a new novel, a project that has already consumed more than 10 years of his life. She asks for help with her master's thesis, which she naively hopes will lead a new generation to read his work.

Moviegoers are right to be suspicious about these May-December encounters, and though director Andrew Wagner handles their relationship with tactful humor, Heather seems too coy and intellectually naive to be taken seriously.

More satisfying is the story of Leonard and his devoted daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), worried about her biological clock because of her intense desire for a child. Ms. Taylor is radiant in the plot as she is torn between her dream and her love for Casey (Adrian Lester), a personable young black admirer whose resistance to fatherhood had led to an earlier breakup.

Mr. Wagner alternates cleanly between the two halves of his story, making clear that Leonard cares deeply for his daughter, even as he is flattered by Heather's attention. Mr. Langella deserves an Oscar for the way he breathes dignity into every expression and movement of this old-time intellectual.

The movie, based on Brian Morton's novel, captures the atmosphere of an older New York literary generation. The movie's restraint, apart from an unwise musical score, works to its ultimate advantage. Leonard comes to appreciate Casey after the latter shows genuine concern for him when he is physically weakened by a stroke, but the movie refuses to tie up its plot lines with a neat bow.

Although Heather may not have made Leonard a hot literary property, she has forced him to reflect on his life and recognize that his characters haven't been doing anything interesting lately. Starting Out in the Evening makes us care about the concerns and limitations of the lives it presents largely because it brings them to vivid life yet refuses to sentimentalize them.

The much anticipated biographical film about Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, is so confusing even ardent fans of the singer/songwriter will find it a disappointment. Todd Haynes, its director and screenwriter, has attempted to concretize Dylan's protean quality by using six different actors to play him at different points of his life, including Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and the 13-year-old African-American star Marcus Carl Franklin. Even more surprising is the casting of Cate Blancher as Dylan.

These different actors perform in a non-narrative that jumps back in forth in time, covering Dylan's life as an imitation Woody Guthrie, a finger-pointing folk-singer, a superstar, an evangelist and finally as a recluse. …

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