Starting Out in the Evening

Remember those days when you would wait for your parents to leave the house so you could invite your girl- or boyfriend over for an evening of videos and cheap wine and illicit sex?

Well, here’s a funny thing. Those days return, when you’re 42 or so. . . .You discover there’s a Friday evening coming up. The kids are going to be out — one at a sleepover, the other doing whatever high school seniors do — and you plot. You get a DVD from Hollywood and a cheap bottle of wine and think about how you’re going to have the house all to yourself.

Ah. . . .the romance of middle age.

My husband and I recently ran into just such a Friday night. Teenage daughter at a friend’s house; adult son out for most of the night. We ran out to rent a film we’d been wanting to see ever since it hit Uptown for about ten minutes last winter then disappeared and opened a bottle of Tiziano Chianti 2005.

The film was called Starting Out in the Evening, a sleeper from 2007 that sprang from a book by Brian Morton, whose entire canon I happen to have read.

Morton is a fascinating writer. Around 50, Jewish, a New Yorker. He clearly has some personal demons to excise. Each of his books covers much the same ground: There is some combination of an older, Jewish, intellectual writer — a contemporary of Bellow’s and Roth’s — a 40-ish woman who is grappling with her desire to have children, a leftist, and an aged but understanding therapist. Morton is, in my experience, the most formulaic writer on the planet today. Yet what he produces is at once readable and fresh. Each time he enters the same territory he has something strangely new to say. He comes at it from a different facet. He makes this single story work, over and over again.

So it is with this film. It’s the story of a 70-year-old novelist (Frank Langella) whose books have all fallen out of print. He is trying to finish that one last novel that will become his legacy when a graduate student (Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under fame) appears at his door to tell him she is writing her thesis about his body of work. Meanwhile, his daughter and — for all intents and purposes — best friend, played by Lily Taylor, is turning 40 and debating whether or not to trick her childless-by-choice boyfriend into an "accidental" baby.

There were rumors Langella would be nominated for an Academy Award for Starting Out, and I think it’s a shame he was not. He is a burly, bullet-shaped elderly man, yet he managed to turn from obdurate to frail after his character suffered a stroke. The scene in which his daughter’s boyfriend must haul the old man out of the bathtub — chest to chest, dripping wet; in some way getting the "child" he was so determined never to have — was worth an Oscar nomination alone.

But back to the evening, OUR evening and the wine. Chianti generally is made out of Sangiovese grapes. It is the cousin of other richer Tuscan reds, such as Montepulciano and Carmignano. But Chianti tends to be smooth and forgettable — a thin table wine with no real character.

This one, however, blew me away — especially for the price, which is around $9 a bottle. Sweet strawberry and honey married with a sturdy, dry, deep forest oak, it’s a light but sophisticated wine. A perfect match for the quiet, poignant film. Exactly right for two exhausted parents grateful simply to be sprawled across each other like puppies in a large chair, drinking in the quiet on a Friday night.