In his debut film, The Talent Given Us, writer-director Andrew Wagner dressed up a fairly shabby road-trip indie with an inspired bit of stunt casting. By having his actual parents and sisters play a family driving across the country to visit their filmmaker son, Wagner redeemed a lot of his lame wisecracks and awkwardly "honest" conversations with charmingly naturalistic performances, raising questions along the way about the proper boundaries between reality and fiction. For his follow-up, Starting Out In The Evening, he and co-screenwriter Fred Parnes have adapted a Brian Morton novel, with the help of an accomplished cast that includes Frank Langella as an aging New York author, Lauren Ambrose as a grad student writing a thesis about Langella's out-of-print novels, and Lili Taylor as Langella's unmarried, unhappy daughter. Between the skilled actors and Harlan Bosmajian's lovely, burnished digital cinematography, Wagner no longer gets a "pretty good for DIY" pass.
Which is too bad for him, because after a thick application of prestige-film polish, Wagner's preferred brand of earnest conversation sounds much clunkier. It's bad enough when Taylor snaps at Langella, "Maybe the characters in your books have the luxury of grappling with moral issues, but I'm living in the real world," but Wagner has her do it when they're seconds away from the opening curtain at an avant-garde dance performance. These characters never switch off the high-toned chatter; they drop literary references at the breakfast table and in the street. Starting Out In The Evening is like the opposite of "mumblecore." It's "loquacitycore."
There's nothing inherently wrong with talky movies—astute writer-directors like Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach can often make unnatural give-and-take sound lively and meaningful—but for all its verbiage, Starting Out In The Evening seems to be fumbling for something to say. The idea of Langella as a neglected, decrepit artist is poignant, as is the idea of Ambrose using an academic study as an excuse to get closer to a writer whose work she's always loved. But the extended subplot about Taylor's desire to have a child before she's too old costs the movie some vital focus, making it less grounded in specificity and more about some abstract romantic idea of creativity in an indifferent world. Wagner and company fail to follow Langella's primary rule of storytelling: "Follow the characters around until they do something interesting."