An ambitious young graduate student zeroes in on a fading literary lion Andrew Wagner's intelligently acted but oddly stagnant adaptation of Brian Morton's acclaimed novel.
Once upon a time, Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) ranked among the best and the brightest of post-War American novelists. Today, none of his four books are in print and novel number five has been a long time coming. While he reassures any editor polite enough to feign interest that it's well on its way, Leonard himself worries that it'll never resolve itself into something worth publishing. Enter Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), an eager grad student from Brown University whose piece on Stanley Elkin made it all the way into the prestigious literary journal "Illuminata." Heather is writing her masters' thesis on the novels of Leonard Schiller and she approaches the man himself for help, begging him to let her into his world. Heather claims her dissertation will help restore Schiller to his proper place among his better known peers, though Leonard is well aware that in resuscitating his reputation Heather will be making her own. Leonard reluctantly agrees to talk about his work, but insists his personal life -- particularly the death of his first wife, a subject which Heather seems to think is the reason behind the failure of his later work -- is strictly off limits. A New Critic of the old school, Leonard can't see what his biography has to do with the work at hand, but the attention soon proves too flattering to resist. Leonard's grown daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), a distinctly un-literary Pilates instructor, soon grows suspicious of Heather's motives. Ariel worries about the effect all this probing will have on her ailing father's health, but Ariel has problems of her own problems trying to live an independent life in the shadow of her famous and increasingly needy father. Ariel has recently gotten back together with her former boyfriend Casey (Adrian Lester), a politically conscious writer who never quite hit it off with Leonard, especially after it became clear that, unlike Ariel, he didn't want children. Their eventual break-up threw Ariel into a deep, year-long depression, and Leonard is concerned that Casey's reappearance in Ariel's life could only mean trouble.
Leonard worries that the interesting characters he's written into his unfinished novel will never do anything interesting, and that's unfortunately the case with the film as a whole: After the initial set-up, none of these robust characters move about the playing field as much as they should. Heather's overt willingness to use her obvious charms to manipulate her susceptible subject, and those bizarre moments during which she reveals a preoccupation with Leonard that goes well beyond the professional, hint at some unexplored psychological dimension that can be too easily written off as yet another case of Crazy Ambitious Bitch Syndrome. And while no one should expect their relationship to veer into Joyce Maynard/J.D. Salinger territory or devolve into ALL ABOUT EVE theatrics, Heather and Leonard's relationship ultimately feels short-changed. However disappointing the dramatics, Wagner's excoriating critique of the current literary world, where celebrity confessions and self-help books are what get published, popular novelists have no problem writing ad copy for credit card companies, and wrestling with moral issues is considered a time-consuming luxury few have the patience for, is absolutely spot-on. leave a comment --Ken Fox