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Old guy-grad student drama takes deeper turn

Leonard Schilling's four novels have long been out of print. He's been working on the fifth for a decade, ever since retiring from his university position.

Leonard Schilling's four novels have long been out of print.

He's been working on the fifth for a decade, ever since retiring from his university position.

He wears a suit and carefully knotted tie to sit at the typewriter in his neat Manhattan apartment, where he's lived alone since his wife died and his daughter, Ariel, now pushing 40, left the nest many years ago.

In case you haven't gotten the message yet, Leonard is old.

A creature of routine. Doesn't do too much. What this guy needs is a smitten young graduate student who wants to write her master's thesis about the man whose books changed her life (well, the first two, anyway).

And who clearly would like to do more than just interview the semi-recluse.

If "Starting Out in the Evening" sounds kind of cliched, well, it is. But then it isn't.

Adapted from Brian Morton's well-regarded novel by director Andrew Wagner and Fred Parnes, the film employs fusty old guy/lively young gal familiarities as a kind of subterfuge, to lure us into a fairly deep contemplation of psychological and emotional barrier-building.

Frank Langella is marvelous as Leonard, a guy so tucked into his safety zone he uses terms like "sacred text" and "gentleman friend" in casual conversation.

It's hard to believe that this fuddy duddy was once considered to be in the same league with the robust likes of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, but that's part of his defensive disguise.

After pouring his heart out in his early books, Leonard's been trying to cast a wider intellectual net.

Plus, he feels he screwed up his marriage and daughter, and would just rather not engage with those or related issues of the heart too intimately.

So Langella tends to keep a poker face and speak in a hushed monotone.

But he comes up with wonderful little hand gestures and body movements that hint at the feelings Leonard's so methodically suppressed.

This all slowly builds to some powerful epiphanies, and Langella is in complete control of every step.

Can't say the same for Lauren Ambrose, the "Six Feet Under" star who plays Heather, the young hot-/smarty-pants.

She grows in the role from a too-obviously keen start to a more compassionately mature, yet less knowable, temptress.

There's a whole other story going on with Lili Taylor's Ariel, a modern dancer turned Pilates instructor (to be read: loser) whose true love, Casey (Adrian Lester), does not share her passionate desire for a child.

Extremely well-acted by both players, this semi-standard relationship also develops interesting curves, power plays and emotional complexities as it unfolds and influences Leonard's increasingly fraught journey of lateself-discovery.

Not surprisingly, director Wagner ("The Talent Given Us") holds degrees in creative writing and psychology from Brown.

The movie digs into both topics in a knowing, if sometimes pat, manner, and does an especially good job of making us long for the days when serious, character-exploring novels really mattered in the culture.

"Starting Out in the Evening" is a smart, insightful film that's even more impressive for the fact that it was shot in a mere 18 days.

As old artist/young woman Oscar bait goes, last year's weirder and entirely livelier "Venus" was a lot more fun - and more persuasively touching, too. *

Produced by Jake Abraham, Nancy Israel, John Sloss and Gary Winick, directed by Andrew Wagner, written by Andrew Wagner and Fred Parnes, based on the novel by Brian Morton, music by Adam Gorgoni, distributed by Roadside Attractions.