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Against the backdrop of Manhattan's changing literary and publishing world, aging novelist Leonard Schiller is asked by Heather Wolfe, a graduate student and budding literary critic, to agree to interviews. He's reluctant to spend the time: his health is failing and he wants to finish one more book. Also he's worried about his daughter, Ariel, who's approaching 40, underemployed, single and wanting a child. But he agrees, hoping Heather can help resurrect interest in his work. As Heather probes Frank's writing and his past, Ariel reconnects to a former lover. Emotions can be raw and messy, and as relationships change, who gets the better part of the bargain? Written by
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A typically strong and thoughtful performance by the great Frank Langella and good supporting actors make this study of a once promising New York Jewish novelist in decline worth watching, but stagnation mars the plot and the film. Leonard Schiller lives alone in a comfortable apartment on the Upper West Side. He's retired from a life of teaching, his earlier novels are all out of print, and he has been struggling for years to complete the latest one. He's regularly visited by his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), a woman on the cusp of forty, once passionate about dancing, who has settled into teaching Pilates and yoga. She has wanted to have a baby before her biological clock runs out, but her man wasn't willing and fled to Chicago. Along comes an aggressive young redhead from Brown named Heather (Lauren Ambrose) to interview Leonard for her MA thesis on his work. She stirs things up for a while. But then they settle back to where they were.
Leonard is so shut down you want to shake him. Langella makes a powerful impressionhe's what you remember after the movie's overbut you wish he'd let the character breathe a bit more. The film's most memorable scenes are certainly those in which he and Heather timidly touch and the merest shadow of a May-December romance briefly appears, surprising Leonard and us.
The heart of the story, however, is what role Leonard's life has had in his art, and how his dedication to the art may have stunted his life and the lives of those around them. The screenplay (and presumably the book by Brian Morton on which Fred Parnes and Wagner based it) valiantly tries to deal with a novelist in terms of his novelsonly the approach is hardly what you could call "literary." Heather turns out to love this writer because strong women characters in his first two books inspired her to break with a clingy boyfriend and go away to college. Schiller's first novels "set her free." His second two novels she can't understand because they changed focus to politics and the strong, independent women dropped out. Wanting to get a handle on that, Heather learns it happened because Schiller's wife died. Prying eventually reveals that neither the wife nor the marriage was as ideal as Schiller represents them. Schiller fights Heather's investigations every step of the way, and sensibly opposes her simplistic biographical approach. He ends by dismissing her thinking and her thesis with remarkable detachment, considering her attentions flattered him. Nonetheless Heather's interest and warmth and eventually what seems to be her love seem to reinvigorate himfor a while, anyway. In the end it all appears to have been too much for him.
Ariel seems a nice contrast to her father, lively and natural; and Taylor is well cast for the role. The Ariel subplot injects life into what might be a numbing portrait. But as time goes on it's clear Ariel is just as stuck as Leonard but without any creative accomplishments behind her. In a moment of crisis she calls an old number and finds that Casey (Adrian Lester), her African American ex-lover, is back in town and ready to resume the relationship. Appropriately for the story's themes, he's a leftist intellectual involved with a journal. It emerges that personally he's as stuck as everybody else. Things still have to be on his terms.
'Evening's' literary details are authentic as far as they go. There are some receptions with schmoozing by Heather, and the identity of a once-respected has-been is well established for Schiller. He presses the literary criticism of Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, and Edmond Wilson on his young admirer. If she's made a specialty of his work and his period, wouldn't she know about them? Whether intended or not, Heather comes across as strong and vibrant, but direct and confrontational to the point of rudeness and disrespect, and shallow as a scholar. One review of this film has suggested she's more like a tabloid journalist. And she is ambitious enough to try to get her MA summary published as a piece in The Village Voice. She keeps claiming she can get Leonard's books back into print. Surprisingly, after becoming a part of Schiller's life, which she is obviously obsessed with, she drops out of it, just when he's in trouble. Schiller's Jewishness is a routine declaration; the screenplay forgets to give him a life that bears it out. Ultimately the movie is as frustrating as the situations of the principals. It promises more than it performs. Langella isn't perfectly cast. He manages to appear stubborn and defeated, but he looks too robust (and too young) for his character. His acting commands attention always, here in its very understatement it's a marvel. But it's too consistent: you still want to shake him. Ultimately you wonder why a film should revolve around such a character. Despite the best intentions, various things have gone wrong.
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