A good indicator of an unnecessary subplot is one that never seems to cross paths with the A-story -- it's a problem that afflicts the new film, Starting out in the Evening, starring Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose and film and stage veteran Frank Langella. Ambrose plays Heather, a feisty graduate student obsessed with the works of a minor, undervalued novelist, Leonard Schiller, played by Langella. Schiller is long past the point of imagining that he will be widely recognized in his lifetime for his work, and has settled into the quietude of old age, but Heather is so determined to gain access into his private world that she brazenly positions herself as a sexual thrill for the 70-something man, and he somewhat half-heartedly takes the bait, leading to a believable but half-cocked courtship and an interesting exploration of a completely lop-sided relationship. Good fodder for a feature-length motion picture, but for some reason director Andrew Wagner also shoehorns in an entire relationship drama centered about Lili Taylor, playing the lovesick, 40-something daughter of Schiller.
The notoriously press-shy Lauren Ambrose was not readily available to speak about her role during the film's recent press jaunt, but that's a shame, because her character is far and away the most intriguing aspect of the film. Heather is very believable as one of those early-20s graduate students who seem to have crammed a lifetime's worth of reading into the years when they could have gotten some fun out of life, making for an inherently sad but also clever and resourceful personality, able to stand toe to toe intellectually with someone who has fifty years on her. The best scenes in Starting Out come closer to the beginning of the film than the ending, when Schiller is continually rejecting Heather's entreaties to be his chronicler-muse-companion. Although he keeps telling her no, she keeps coming up with reasons to jam her foot back in the door, like some kind of bookworm stalker who knows exactly how to keep from being confronted with a final, stern rejection. These early scenes are spot-on and very well-executed.
The conversations and confrontations between Ambrose and Langella are weighty stuff, and it makes sense for the film to need to turn away to some other side-story, but the way to go would be to delve into Heather's private life. She seems, to us the audience, to have no friends or connections outside of her literary obsessions, and the personality she puts up when facing Schiller is so calculating and shielded that it would be fascinating to see her interacting with people her own age in a social setting. Wagner doesn't go down this route, however -- he instead dumps us into Lili Taylor's love problems, a subplot from Mars that doesn't have anything to do with the themes being presented in the main action of the picture. If I remember correctly, she had a boyfriend in Chicago who left her because he didn't want children and she did, and now he's back in her life but hasn't changed his mind about wanting children, or something. What does this have to do with the price of tea in Afghanistan?
No points for guessing that Heather and Schiller eventually consummate their initially cerebral affair, but the fact that the consummation is mostly left off-screen is a demerit for director Wagner. If you're going to spin your entire film around the awkwardness of a 20-something openly seducing an elderly man in the hopes that he will open up about his life to her, you damn well better keep the camera rolling when they finally go behind closed doors. In demurring at such a crucial interval, Wagner comes off as shy and non-committal instead of respectful or uninterested in being salacious. That we have a not-so-clear picture of their intimacy also colors the events that come afterward, when the incredibly precarious relationship starts to move towards the end of its naturally short lifespan. The longer the film goes on, in fact, the less we feel a genuine, if frayed bond between the two lead characters. It starts to feel more and more like acting going on in front of us instead of anything that could be found in nature.
Starting Out in the Evening deserves a mild passing grade because it pulls off several tricky and compelling scenes in its first half, thanks to its lead actors. Ambrose particularly is an actress we should all be paying close attention to. Her choices in film roles -- not to suggest she has great control over them -- haven't been terribly great so far, but she has a natural talent that shines through in nearly everything she does, and I happen to think that when a great role does come calling, she'll be ready for it. She knows how to play 'too smart for her own good,' which is a tricky note to hit, but a great one when it's played right. Together, she and Langella hardly strike a false note in this film's first half, before the story starts to pull away into Taylor's subplot. The second half of the A-story is not as compelling, however, and the ending is surprisingly cruel, almost unnecessarily so. What are we supposed to think about what happens in that kitchen?