Dr. Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is a novelist and retired college professor whose body of work includes a novel many critics considered a great classic when published decades ago. But that was then this is now as Schiller struggles to finish his latest novel one that has so far taken him 10 years to write. Into his life comes Heather (Lauren Ambrose) a brash college student who is writing her thesis on Schiller and his work. She’s a pretty beguiling thing filled with ambition and drive; and those are exactly the things that Schiller has somehow lost along the way. As the two of them form an uneasy relationship with Schiller’s daughter (Lili Taylor) as a third part of this emotionally repressed triangle the story unfolds with twists and turns. The finale reminds us that no matter how old we are if we want to do something artistic then even Starting Out in the Evening of our lives is better than never getting going at all. Langella’s stellar performance is at the heart of this quietly affecting film. He plays Schiller as an insulated emotionally bereft artist whose life spark died the moment he lost his wife (decades before) in a car crash. He’s never had the passion to write to the level he did before she died; nor has he had passion for much of anything else including his daughter until Heather shows up at his door and insists he begin to feel life again. Ambrose (of Six Feet Under fame) is perfectly cast as the young woman who hero-worships this much-older man and who brings him back into a passion for living by her mere presence. Their story is real and affecting as is the subplot of Schiller’s daughter whose life is passing her by much as her father’s. By the time the film ends both father and daughter have had life-altering experiences due to the catalyst created by this stranger in their midst--and both are the better for it. With Starting Out in the Evening director Andrew Wagner has fashioned a subtle quiet vision of Brian Morton’s award-winning novel of the same name. He certainly seems to understand the inherent pressure of having a youthful success in the arts. What does one do next after giving the world a masterpiece while still in an early part of one’s life? For his main character that struggle and question have become overwhelming with the result being his shutting down to any of life’s more joyous or emotional experiences. There’s a lot going on under the surface of this film a directing technique Wagner may have absorbed from his famous uncle Mark Rydell who directed On Golden Pond a picture with some similar themes. The downside to Wagner’s technique is in his pacing for there are moments where the movie moves so slowly it is hard not to be bored. But by the final frames there is an emotional resonance to the story that cannot be ignored especially if the viewer is someone who aspires to excel in any of the world’s creative disciplines. This makes Starting Out in the Evening a worthwhile experience for nascent writers artists musicians etc. And a warning as well: to pace yourself for the duration of your life rather than explode on the scene with nothing left to give once an impression has been made.
Ira Black (Chris Messina) is a prototypical movie New Yorker--he wears a lot of black he's in therapy (well technically analysis) and he's in the habit of over-thinking everything he does from his Ph.D. dissertation to what to order for lunch. Then he meets free-spirited empathetic Abby Willoughby (Jennifer Westfeldt) and everything changes. They're engaged within hours married within a week and in couples' therapy not long after. Meanwhile their long-married parents--uptight opera-going Sy (Robert Klein) and Arlene (Judith Light) Black and freewheeling easygoing Michael (Fred Willard) and Lynne (Frances Conroy) Willoughby--have their own issues to face. And their own professionals to consult. In the end everyone's left pondering the true meaning of love commitment marriage and mental health. When a movie's cast is as full of talented professionals as Ira and Abby's it's hard to begrudge the fact that most of them are playing somewhat familiar characters. Messina's Ira is angsty conflicted and quick to question happiness--in other words every neurotic New Yorker Woody Allen ever played. Meanwhile Westfeldt (who also wrote the film) works the same loquacious slightly kooky charm she perfected in Kissing Jessica Stein; you can't help liking Abby even when you want to shake some sense into her. In the supporting cast Klein Light Conroy and Willard are all strong rising above the "conservative" and "hippie" labels hanging over their characters' heads (it's particularly nice to see Willard in a role that's a bit toned down from his usual brand of cheerful oafishness). And familiar faces like Jason Alexander Chris Parnell and Darrell Hammond are a welcome too. Ira and Abby is only Robert Cary's second feature film credit; his first Standard Time was a musical and you can see some of that genre's broad sensibility here too. Ira's pre-Abby world is all dark colors cool light and sharp lines--but when he crosses into her sphere suddenly primary hues are everywhere rooms are suffused with warm yellow glows and furniture is for relaxing on not admiring. Unfortunately too many of the same kind of obvious cues direct the story as well. Westfeldt's script is smart and often charming but it's never very hard to guess where Ira and Abby is going: If you're looking for a "and then they got married and lived happily ever after" story you won't find it here. Ira and Abby's perspective on marriage may be a bit more realistic than the Grimm brothers' but you still shouldn't recommend it to any newlyweds you know.
Steven Soderbergh's crime-drama "The Limey" and Alexander Payne's high school satire "Election" led the pack of (relatively) low-budget, high-expectation projects as nominations were announced Wednesday for the 15th Annual Independent Spirit Awards, honoring, yes, indie film.
"The Limey" and "Election" received a field-best five nominations each. Hollywood blockbusters such as "Toy Story 2" and "The Green Mile" received zippo. (They're not indies.)
With the studio heavyweights excluded, a variety of films that failed to garner tremendous box office during the 1999 film season found redemption as the Spirit nominations were handed down. David Lynch's "The Straight Story", a simple yet powerful film about an aging man's trek across country on his lawn mower, earned four nominations. Kimberly Peirce's controversial "Boys Don't Cry" also received four nods -- including ones for best lead actress (Hilary Swank) and best supporting female (Chloe Sevigny).
The five films slated to do battle in the main best-picture event are: Payne's "Election," Soderbergh's "The Limey," Lynch's "The Straight Story," Allison Anders and Kurt Voss' "Sugar Town", and Robert Altman's "Cookie's Fortune".
Awards will be handed out in Santa Monica on March 25 -- the day before the Oscars. The Spirits are sponsored by the Independent Feature Project/West.
The following is the complete list of nominations for the 15th annual IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards:
BEST FEATURE "Election" "The Straight Story" "The Limey" "Cookie's Fortune" "Sugar Town"
BEST FEMALE LEAD Diane Lane, "Walk on the Moon" Janet McTeer, "Tumbleweeds" Hilary Swank, "Boys Don't Cry" Susan Traylor, "Valerie Flake" Reese Witherspoon, "Election"
BEST MALE LEAD John Cusack, "Being John Malkovich" Richard Farnsworth, "The Straight Story" Terence Stamp, "The Limey" David Strathairn, "Limbo" Noble Willingham, "The Corndog Man"
BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE Barbara Barrie, "Judy Berlin" Vanessa Martinez, "Limbo" Sarah Polley, "Go" Chloe Sevigny, "Boys Don't Cry" Jean Smart, "Guinevere"
BEST SUPPORTING MALE Charles S. Dutton, "Cookie's Fortune" Luis Guzman, "The Limey" Terrence Howard, "The Best Man" Clark Gregg, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole" Steve Zahn, "Happy, Texas"
BEST DIRECTOR Alexander Payne, "Election" Harmony Korine, "julien donkey-boy" Steven Soderbergh, "The Limey" David Lynch, "The Straight Story" Doug Liman, "Go"
BEST SCREENPLAY Kevin Smith, "Dogma" Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, "Election" Audrey Wells, "Guinevere" Lem Dobbs, "The Limey" James Merendino, "SLC Punk!"
BEST FIRST FEATURE ($500,000-plus budget) "Being John Malkovich" "Three Seasons" "Boys Don't Cry" "Twin Falls Idaho" "Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl"
BEST FIRST FEATURE (less than $500,000 budget) "The Blair Witch Project" "La Ciudad" "Compensation" "Judy Berlin" "Treasure Island"
BEST DEBUT PERFORMANCE Kimberly J. Brown, "Tumbleweeds" Jessica Campbell, "Election" Jade Gordon, "Sugar Town" Toby Smith, "Drylongso" Chris Stafford, "Edge of Seventeen"
BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY Tod Williams, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole" Charlie Kaufman, "Being John Malkovich" Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen, "Boys Don't Cry" Anne Rapp, "Cookie's Fortune" John Roach and Mary Sweeney, "The Straight Story"
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHER M. David Mullen, "Twin Falls Idaho" Lisa Rinzler, "Three Seasons" Anthony Dod Mantle, "julien donkey-boy" Jeffrey Seckendorf, "Judy Berlin" Harlan Bosmajian, "La Ciudad"
BEST FOREIGN FILM "All About My Mother" (Spain) "Run Lola Run" (Germany) "My Son the Fanatic" (England) "Topsy-Turvy" (England) "Rosetta" (Belgium-France)
DLJ DIRECT TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD (for documentaries) Owsley Brown, "Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles" Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgan, "On the Ropes" Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson, "Well Founded Fear" Rory Kennedy, "American Hollow"
MOVADO SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD (for new directors) Dan Clark, "The Item" Julian Goldberger, "Trans" Lisanne Skyler, "Getting to Know You" Cauleen Smith, "Drylongso"
MOTOROLA PRODUCERS AWARD Pam Koffler, "I'm Losing You" and "Office Killer" Eva Kolodner, "Boys Don't Cry" and "Hide and Seek" Paul Mezey, "La Ciudad" Christine Walker, "Backroads" and "Homo Heights"