In an early scene of Starting out in the Evening—which could best be described as a movie about books for people who don't actually read them—a publisher demurs from accepting a novelist's unsolicited manuscript. "We don't deal with much that's not cookbooks or celebrity bios these days," he apologizes. Swell, I thought: Some bitter novelist-turned-screenwriter is going to grind his literary axe all over the screen for the next hour and a half.
If only I had been so lucky: Starting Out is the closest thing the "writers rediscovering themselves" film genre has to a Scary Movie-style spoof. But Starting Out has no intention of sending up corny author-themed movies like Wonder Boys or Winter Passing. Instead, it's content to mine and rehash every cliché about literary inspiration, carpe-ing the diem, and vintage typewriters that clove cigarette-smoking wannabes have imagined as their destiny since the invention of the printing press. (Especially the part of the fantasy in which they get to boink grad students 40 years their junior.)
Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) is a grad school wunderkind working on a critical biography that she hopes will resurrect the writing career of aging novelist Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella). For being such a supposedly brilliant student, Heather asks a lot of dopey questions, like her interview lead: "When you sit down to write your books, do you have them all planned out?"
By interview three, Heather's all, "Do me, Leonard," and Leonard's like, "But you're just a child," before padding off to stare at his wrinkled reflection in the mirror. Soon enough, Heather is sobbing on Leonard's doorstep, delivering platitudes like, "Your books allow me to be me!" But instead of a more plausible reaction like "This serves me right for waxing that young ass," Leonard realizes that he needs to drop the emotional walls around his heart and learn to live again. Once that happens, there's only one way this imbecilic movie can end: with the reassuring clickety-clack of the antique typewriter. Roll credits.