"The Sound and the Fury would have gone out of print in the 1940s if Malcolm Cowley hadn't published The Portable Faulkner."
That line may not sound like a come-on, a finely calibrated instrument of seduction, but it is—in two senses.
In the opening moments of Andrew Wagner's excellent chamber drama Starting Out in the Evening, the line is spoken to aging New York novelist Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) by Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a lissome young graduate student who's writing her thesis on his work and says she wants to revive public interest in it.
So Heather intends to give the world The Portable Schiller? Leonard asks the question with an air of skeptical bemusement. She, all wide-eyed sincerity and silky auburn hair, answers in the passionate affirmative. The seduction is under way.
And so it is, too, for viewers—at least those (myself included) susceptible to being seduced by a smart, subtle, beautifully nuanced evocation of the New York literary world.
Naturally, the words "literary world" now suggest something more past than present, and inevitably invoke a tone that is itself literary, edged with elegy, irony and a kind of bittersweet knowingness.
Leonard Schiller, a survivor of the tribe of "Bellow and Schwartz," in his own formulation, measures out his days by the teaspoon. His four novels are long since out of print, and he's struggling—clacking away, very slowly, on an old typewriter—with what he assumes will be his last work, if he completes it. He quit teaching the year before, when he also had heart surgery. "They cracked me open like a lobster," he tells Heather.
Heather is out to crack him open in a different way. She wants him to grant her interviews so that she can probe the autobiographical sources of his work. He resists, both because he says his current labors allow no time for such distraction and because he feels it's the novelist's writings that are important, not his life. His resistance, as you might expect, is no match for the strength of her entreaties.
Is it vanity that makes him relent? Or loneliness? Desire? Or professional self-interest? The film is sharp enough to not imagine that any one of these answers will suffice—novelists, of all people, stand for the complexity of motives—nor does it fail to invite questions concerning Heather's own motivations.
She tells him—in what seems a moment of calculated candor—that his stories of self-determined women "set me free." Free, that is, to leave the needy pull of her high-school boyfriend and venture off to the literary precincts of Brown, where she's published a study of Stanley Elkin and failed to get a couple of reviews printed in The Village Voice.
Freedom, though, is a tricky ideal in Starting Out in the Evening. Leonard feels obliged to give his characters their freedom, following them as long as it takes for them to do something significant; yet sometimes they never do. His headstrong daughter Ariel (a nice performance by Lili Taylor), a dancer turned Pilates instructor, is facing 40, determined to have a child yet still caught in a cycle of self-defeating relationships; currently she's tossed between one man (played by UNC alum Michael Cumpsty) who may compromise her freedom and another (Adrian Lester), who insists too much on his own.
Though the tangled stratagems of these characters add up to a multifaceted drama, Starting Out in the Evening is one of those films in which drama mainly exists to provide a narrative elaboration of what is essentially a study of character and milieu. And surely few subjects are richer than those limned in Wagner's finely etched miniature. The Jewish intellectual and literary efflorescence that enlivened New York in the '50s and '60s was one of the most potent and influential cultural forces of the last century. It's amazing we haven't seen dozens of films about people like Leonard Schiller.
Yet it's also hard to imagine any such characters rendered more perfectly than Frank Langella's Schiller. With his gray cardigans, owlish glasses and book-lined Upper West Side apartment, his professorial reserve and moral scrupulousness, this literary lion in winter could easily have verged toward caricature (imagine the Woody Allen version!), but Langella's fastidious intelligence illuminates Leonard's own, showing the doubts and regrets that roil beneath his life's carefully ordered calm.
At the end of last year, it was a foregone conclusion among many critics that Langella's performance would be among this year's Best Actor nominees. But Oscar withholds its glow from films it considers too small or low-grossing. Too bad. I'll take Langella's conflicted novelist any day over Daniel Day-Lewis' showboat of an oil tycoon. —Godfrey Cheshire
Starting out in the Evening opens Friday in select theaters.
At his current pace, it is only a matter of years before Will Ferrell, and Hollywood in general, mines the entire wide world of sports for satirical ore—can parodies of jai alai and Australian Rules Football be far behind? Unfortunately, the only semi-original aspect about Semi-Pro, Ferrell's laborious ode to the latter days of the American Basketball Association, is the conspicuous fact that it is the first R-rated Ferrell-starring vehicle since Old School, a change undoubtedly fueled more by Judd Apatow emulation than creative inspiration.
Like Blades of Glory and Talladega Nights before it, Semi-Pro's premise is far funnier than its presentation. Set in the mid-1970s, Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, a faded pop music crooner who parlayed royalties from his lone hit, "Love Me Sexy," into purchasing the fictional Flint Michigan Tropics. Jackie whiles away his days as owner-coach-player-PA announcer for the fledging ABA franchise. When the league announces plans to merge four teams into the NBA and disband the rest, Jackie faces the double-whammy of having to win plus attract fans in order to save his team.
There is lots of red meat here for the Ferrell fan base even if he continues to spend most scenes rambling on in search of a punch line. Ferrell wisely shares the limelight with his supporting cast, including André Benjamin as star guard Clarence 'Coffee' Black and Woody Harrelson as a washed-up ex-NBAer looking for one last chance at redemption.
Beyond the setup, however, the jokes are as musty as a gym locker. Writer Scot Armstrong, whose last two screenplay credits are The Heartbreak Kid and School for Scoundrels, runs out of ideas less than halfway through, leaving a void that Ferrell fills with his trademark paunchy lout persona. A few guffaws float to the top, most of them generated by Will Arnett and Andrew Daly as the Tropics' tightly wound TV announcing team. However, the rest of the film reflects the gist of its title. —Neil Morris
Semi-pro opens Friday throughout the Triangle.
Jodhaa Akbar is set amid a spectacle of 16th-century Mughal empire power and glory. Director Ashutosh Gowariker (Lagaan) personalizes a complicated web of princely state conquests and alliances by focusing on an apocryphal love story between the Muslim emperor Akbar and his Hindu princess, Jodhaa.
Historical movies can be a bit stiff, the actors muffled by their weighty costumes and historical gravitas. Hrithik Roshan as the emperor (introduced bronco busting an elephant) and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as the fiery Jodhaa inspire sighs in midst of all the pageantry. Stunt coordinator Ravi Dewan orchestrated 5,000 extras, 250 stunt men and a screen full of elephants and camels into startling battle scenes—real life is cheaper than CGI in India. Hrithik reorients his dancing skills for some thrilling swordfights worthy of Errol Flynn. Neeta Lulla created a stunning array of embellished clothes and weighty ornaments; stylish Akbar even wears his pearls into battle. The music by A. R. Rahman is mostly an underscore, with few lip-synched songs.
Jodhaa Akbar is gorgeous, but it has a political agenda, too: Hindu-Muslim unity alone guarantees the future of an enlightened state. Both faiths have some divine inspiration along the way, but Akbar does not find his religion so fragile that it's threatened by Jodhaa's. Muslim hardliners will eventually be exiled to Mecca, where they can presumably meditate on their duty to Islam.
When the glow of national religious unity shines from the faces of two of the most gorgeous people on the planet, who can say no to World Peace Through Bollywood? At $10 million, this film, pricey by Indian standards, was released with a record 115 prints in stateside theaters. Judging by the lines at the Galaxy, it's no surprise this three-hour and 38-minute epic landed in the U.S. top 20 last week. Be sure to eat in advance, or bring money for the snack bar samosas. —Laura Boyes
Jodhaa Akbar is now playing at Galaxy Cinema.