The movies love lonely middle-aged (and older) professors, as well as struggling, aging literary and academic writers.
In the 1930 classic Blue Angel from Josef von Sternberg, an old professor (Emil Jannings) follows his students to an illicit nightclub where he slowly, pathetically falls in love with the alluring young dancer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). It doesn't go well.
In Nabokov's classic Lolita, adapted for the screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1962 and again in 1997 by Adriane Lyne, British professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason in 1962; Jeremy Irons in 1997) comes to America and falls for an underage girl. It doesn't go well.
There have been other such movies, usually featuring fine actors lured to the theme of a man of great intellect succumbing to the messiness of life and romance, often while trying to write. Michael Douglas in The Wonder Boys, Anthony Hopkins in The Human Stain and Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale are some recent examples.
We have three such films in play now. In Noam Murro's Smart People, Dennis Quaid does a quietly convincing job portraying a frumpy, egotistical widower, Carnegie Mellon professor -- and struggling father of the prematurely forward teen daughter played by Ellen Page -- who is trying to get a book published and develop a relationship with former student played by Sarah Jessica Parker.
In Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor, veteran character actor Richard Jenkins gets a chance to star as a still-grieving widowed economics professor who attends a conference in New York and finds two illegal immigrants living in the family apartment he still keeps there. A friendship develops among them, especially between him and a Syrian drummer (Haaz Sleiman). When the latter gets arrested and threatened with deportation, Jenkins' Walter Vale slowly rises out of his Ivory Tower-induced slumber to take a stand. Jenkins does an excellent job.
But the best of the three is Andrew Wagner's Starting Out in the Evening, adapted by him and Fred Parnes from a novel by Brian Morton. In it, the commanding Frank Langella (who played Humbert Humbert's nemesis Clare Quilty in 1997's Lolita) is 70-year-old Leonard Schiller, a literary novelist who has fallen out of fashion and become "lost" while trying to write his fifth -- and maybe last -- book. He has a weak heart and is almost reclusive about his life, putting his work ahead of everything else.
If he isn't an active professor in the film, his milieu is that of the elitist academic who has no tolerance for pop culture. Novelist Morton is a professor, himself, who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Morton also once worked with Irving Howe, a giant of the New York intellectual world.
An attractive and very forward graduate student, Heather Wolfe (Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose), decides to do her thesis on Schiller and to make him her personal reclamation project in the process. He slowly cooperates, and is not too old or closed off from his body to feel romantic stirrings. She, too, seems to have them -- but whether she just is using her considerable beauty to seduce him is one of the questions the film explores.
This is not as simple as Blue Angel. Everyone here is a sympathetic character with mixed motives. Leonard has an almost-middle-aged daughter (Lili Taylor, also of Six Feet Under) who is a bit of an aging hippie with romantic problems that trouble him greatly.
You can see issues dating back to the 1960s -- liberal parents and their wayward children -- playing out in their relationship, but she is also concerned for him as he falls under Heather's sway. And as she renews a relationship with an old boyfriend (Adrian Lester), Leonard worries she is falling into the same old pattern.
All the acting is extremely good. Langella, however, is phenomenal in a sensitive, understated, haunting performance that presents the aging novelist with both all his dignity and in all his nakedness.
It isn't showy, but it's authoritative -- a literary lion who doesn't need to growl. He should have gotten an Oscar nomination. Grade: A
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