Opens at Harvard Exit, Fri., Dec. 14. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes.
Faithful in style and spirit to the award-winning novel by Brian Morton, Andrew Wagner's wise, observant, and exquisitely tacit chamber piece complicates every May-December, academic-novel cliché. A mutually dependent relationship unfolds between Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), an old-school writer of the Bellow-Roth-Howe generation of realists, and Heather (Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose), the eager-beaver Brown University grad who worms her way into Leonard's life and tries to persuade him that her forthcoming master's thesis on his work will put a new shine on the old man's dusty reputation. Langella is superb, at once held-in and intensely physical in his rendition of this proudly anachronistic man, a shell imprisoned in his impressive bulk and formal suit, with only the slightly hunted look in his otherwise blank eyes revealing a fear that his day may be done. Wagner's grasp of the clash between old and new academe is witty and quietly assured—neither world gets off lightly, or without sympathy. Callow, ambitious, and raring to connect the dots between what she thinks she knows about Leonard's life and his art, Heather is a parasite, but a useful one for a man stranded in ivory-tower detachment and private grief. If Starting Out is a movie about how little we know and how much we presume, it is also about transformation, about heartbreak and halting renewal.