On the Aisle (2008)
Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on January 24, 2008 @ Fayetteville Free Weekly.
Starting Out in the Evening and The Savages
According to a recent movie, growing old and dying in the west is a lark.
According to The Bucket List, you meet a multi-millionaire, and the two of you go cavorting. Even if you have cancer, it's a real party. Lotsa fun. Dying in the east, not so much.
Two recent movies, set in the east (New York City and Buffalo), show the bleak side of growing old.
Starting Out in the Evening and The Savages are two quality movies in which a father's aging frustrates and troubles those around him. No grinning millionaire there. Only downbeat, dogged struggling.
Starting Out in the Evening has a formidable performance by Frank Langella to recommend it; he portrays Leonard Schiller, a New York Jewish novelist whose books are out of print.
Leonard gets a pat on the ego from a young graduate student Heather Wolfe (get the surname), who wants to write her thesis about him and his work. He is reluctant, but she is aggressive and crafty in gaining access to him.
Meanwhile his daughter Ariel (Lily Taylor) has lived her life unable to commit (yawn). Ariel teaches exercise, pilates and yoga, of course, and yearns for a baby. That's enchanting.
The acting is better than the convoluted script. Maybe screenwriters Andrew Wagner and Fred Parnes, who fitfully adapted the Brian Morton novel, could borrow the sky-diving sequence from The Bucket List to add a little gravity.
Three negligible characters striking poses has little point. One of the least promising of subjects is a writer who isn't successful writing. There are plenty of us. A typewriter is a typewriter is a typewriter.
Wagner, who also directed, is better with actors. He gets convincing performances from all three major actors.
Langella knows how to let silence work for him. Lily Taylor is convincing as the anxious daughter, and so is Lauren Ambose as the willful student.
Equally bleak and smallbore, or perhaps large boring, is The Savages, the tale of how a brother and sister have to face the decline and demise of their father.
Like Starting Out in the Evening, The Savages is a personal film about familial dysfunction, but The Savages is even more personal.
Written and by Tamara Jenkins, it's a labored labor of love about an estranged brother and sister, who have to deal with a frail and fractious father.
Again the acting is superior to the script. Philip Bosco ably portrays the confused and angry father, and Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are effective as the unsettled siblings.
2007 was an impressive year for the ubiquitous Hoffman, He's got the brother role down pat. He also essayed the part of a brother in Before the Devil Knows you're Dead, but that brother was more Cain than Abel. Also in 2007, Hoffman excelled as the rogue CIA agent in Charlie Wilson's War.
In The Savages, Hoffman tries on normalcy. His character, Jon Savage, still has a touch of neurosis, but he's one of the most normal characters Hoffman has personified.
Many movies are destroyed or at least hampered by their perfunctory endings. In a sense, endings reverberate back through films with potency or its lack.
In Starting Out in the Evening we have lack. The ending of the movie is different from Brian Morton's novel; the novel ends focusing on the daughter Ariel, the movie ends with Leonard. In the book, Ariel's acceptance at the end is uplifting; in the movie, Leonard's pose in the final image is more of the same. The movie's ending is not what it should be; it's just stolid and conventional.
The ending of The Savages is potent. The surprising last image is clever, delightful and life affirming. It makes one smile.
The ending of Starting Out in the Evening is perfunctory; the ending of The Savages is one of the best of the year.
Both Starting Out in the Evening and The Savages deal with aging uncomfortably in the east.
Though born in the east, I think I'd prefer to decline elsewhere. Didn't W.C. Fields once say about his tombstone, "I'd rather be in Fayetteville."?