To give one an indication of the self-contained and rather silly world of Starting Out in the Evening‘s characters, take this scene: Two reunited ex-lovers, played by Lili Taylor and Adrian Lester, wait in line at New York City’s Cinema Village and have a squabble over whether to see The Battle of Algiers or The Young Girls of Rochefort. Ignoring the fact that having these two classics playing aside each other at the Cinema Village is highly improbable, why must Jacques Demy and Gillo Pontecorvo be implicated in such a ridiculous spat, which seems to exist for no reason than to show that these people are not exactly great for one another? This is the sort of film where characters spout off authors and film titles to show off their worldliness, when really it’s filmmaker masturbation; what director Andrew Wagner and co-writer Fred Parnes like becomes what their characters like, and while it’s nice they enjoy French musicals and historical dramas, their taste adds nothing to the story’s purpose.
Mostly, this film is a smug literati’s interpretation of a May-December romance, with the not-very-celebrated, aging novelist Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) agreeing to be interviewed by a pixieish, opportunistic grad student (Lauren Ambrose) and developing a rapport with her, all while trying to keep the faith of his middle-aged daughter (Taylor), who is juggling two men while trying to decide if she wants one of them to raise the baby she desperately wants to have. Langella, a subtle, nuanced treasure of an actor, truly tries to keep the film together, but he is miscast—still too vibrant and dashing (even with liver spots) to play a creaky old bird. It might have helped if his young female costar wasn’t so aggravatingly precious. Ambrose, whose work here suggests her Six Feet Under character with pure caffeine injections, plays the young academic harpy so aggressively that you’re never given the opportunity to sympathize with her; you also wonder why Langella’s character would ever be smitten with her, even on a dirty-old-man level. Once one gets to the guffaw-inducing moment where she seductively slathers honey on Langella’s face (and, yes, it’s played for utter seriousness despite his priceless “WTF?” reaction), besides wondering why Langella doesn’t growl, “Bitch, why did you just do that?,” is the more pertinent question of why his character didn’t opt to safely observe her from the safe side of a door’s peephole for the duration of the picture.