When Heather (Lauren Ambrose), the cute young grad student in "Starting Out in the Evening," asks the literary warhorse Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) whether he'll help with her master's thesis on his books, he says no. He's old. He's busy. Who'd care? Leonard's four novels have been out of print and out of fashion for years. Heather persists, and he gradually succumbs to her, intellectually and sexually.
Heather isn't a stalker so much as an intensely ambitious, overeager flatterer (she says she wants to be Joni Mitchell, Joan Didion, Joan of Arc: "I have under-30 disease"). Discreetly, Leonard brings himself to enjoy the excitement of the relationship. The movie, meanwhile, is a reasonably complicated portrait of being old and still desirable to a pert young go-getter.
Adapted from Brian Morton's novel by Fred Parnes and the director Andrew Wagner, "Starting Out in the Evening" is a gentle collection of scenes that work and scenes that don't. In the ones that do, Heather freely gives Leonard's works grand contexts, and he resists - the idea that he breathes the same "moral air" as Hemingway and Dostoyevsky is particularly hard for him to take. These two have some fine conversations about his legacy, why he stopped writing so nakedly, and how he can't believe she loves R.K. Narayan, too.
But almost half this movie is devoted to Leonard's unfulfilled daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor). Playing spritely helper to Leonard's ailing Prospero, she drops in on him sitcom-style to watch movies, say hi, and generally be a loyal daughter, usually when Heather is there. But Ariel has her own problems. She's looking for a man to give her a baby (she's about to turn 40, and he doesn't have to help raise it). She settles on Casey (Adrian Lester), the ex who broke her heart. Despite Taylor's performance and the universality of her situation, this woman isn't terribly compelling.
Essentially, the older daughter has been dumped for a newer model. But "Starting Out in the Evening" skirts psychosexual intrigue (alas, it's not French) and opts for a more adult-contemporary air with a lot of piano twinkling all over the soundtrack.
In Wagner's previous movie, "The Talent Given Us," he filmed his actual family on a road trip to see him. It was a weirdly illuminating psychodrama with surprising human heft. "Starting Out in the Evening" feels emotionally blunted by comparison. When Leonard disapproves of Ariel's plans, all she can do is point out, "Maybe the characters in your books have the luxury of grappling with moral issues, but I'm in the real world" - the real world courtesy of single-chick cliches: diaphragm woes, cartons of opened Chinese food with the chopsticks still in them, an "it's not you, it's me" speech.
Time with Ariel feels so empty because, as a character, Leonard is so rich - and because Langella's performance is so smart. Leonard is an imposing, vaguely Germanic figure of guilt and disappointment. Walking the streets of New York speaking like the professorial gentleman he is, this tall, terribly proper man seems like a dinosaur. Langella actually makes you sense that the need to matter again as a writer is weighing on Leonard's soul. Ambrose overplays Heather's ambition, but Langella absorbs her eagerness, so his reluctance to be soothed or riveted by her ego strokes seems just right.
His ambivalence is the most natural thing about this film. Eventually, plot mechanics take over (beware the trip to the hospital), and the movie seems increasingly overwritten as it begins to hammer away at Ariel's belief that people don't change. Here that's inorganically true. If people can't change themselves, a screenplay will definitely do the trick.