At first, Leonard, living alone in his Upper West Side apartment, politely begs off - he's too busy trying to finish his novel, 10 years in the typing, to spare the hours for her proposed weekly sessions. But Heather isn't shy, her queries are flattering, and she knows her stuff (the movie's occasional lit-world chitchats, the mentions of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, are surprisingly unclunky).
Leonard relents. And so a relationship - rife with intellectual and sexual tension, but more important, with tenderness and affection - begins.
Director Andrew Wagner, with a screenplay adapted from a Brian Morton novel, draws Leonard and Heather's complicated mentor/protegee, May-September dynamics well. Langella, as a worn-out soul who has retreated into a world of safe routine and bookish pursuits, is never less than brilliant. The actor is the character, head to toe.
Ambrose, the moody art-school kid from HBO's late, lamented Six Feet Under, is wholly credible as the bright, ambitious reader and writer whose interest in Leonard becomes more than merely analytical.
The filmmakers are a notch less successful with the parallel story of Leonard's cusp-of-40 daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), and her on again/off again relationship with a commitment-phobic nice guy (Adrian Lester). But as things move apace, the separate story lines dovetail - and Leonard and Ariel's messy family history comes to light.
Starting Out in the Evening is a "small" movie. But in its keenly observed examination of strangers who become intimates - and of family members who remain, in part, strangers - it has big things to say.
Starting Out in the Evening *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Andrew Wagner. With Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor and Adrian Lester. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Five
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.