Adapted for the screen by Michael Cunningham from Susan Minot's novel, Evening is the story of seventysomething Ann Grant (Vanessa Redgrave) who shocks her daughters Constance (Natasha Richardson, who really is Redgrave's daughter) and Nina (Toni Collette) when in her dying hours she cries out for a man the younger women have never heard of. The film then cuts back and forth from Ann on her deathbed to the rich details of a fabulous wedding 50 years earlier and a white-hot romance that flamed out before it got started. The younger Ann (Claire Danes) is the maid of honor at that long ago wedding. Her best friend Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer) is marrying a man she doesn't love because the man she does love doesn't love her even though she's offered to turn herself into a sexual gymnast for his personal entertainment. The man she does love, Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson), is now a doctor, but he used to be Lila's family's maid's son and because he's servant born we're pretty sure that Lila's parents (Glenn Close and Barry Bostwick) disapprove of him, even though most everybody in this film is too proper to discriminate in the open.
In fact, everybody in this film is so pip pip, 'I see you wore your Havud tie old chap and I just kahn't imaaaaagine where I'm going to seat the Sneeds at the reception, since their falling out with the Ningles,' that it's amazing the script manages to work up enough conflict to keep going. Lila's brother Budd (Hugh Dancy) assists a tad in this regard. He's a hyperactive drunk who'd write a smashing novel and enjoy a wonderful literary career if he could ever get around to that pesty busywork of actually writing. Budd is the kind of character who should come with a Post-It Note on his forehead that reads: "Won't make it out of the second act alive." Because he drinks, Budd can speak the truth where no one else can speak at all. Budd thinks Lila should stop marrying the man she doesn't love and get on with marrying Harris. Budd really likes Harris and doesn't hold it against him at all that his mother was a maid. Harris, of course, has other ideas, and he must because he's turning down a perfectly nice, lovely and willing young sex slave who arrives in their own personal pleasure dome with the advantage of being really, really rich. From what we can tell, it seems that the Wittenborns own the Rhode Island coast.
But no, Harris has other ideas, and for a fleeting moment the other idea is Ann. Let's go slippy hidey; I know a cabin in the wood. And if you would, I would. And so they do. Even though Budd has had a crush on Ann since they were sophomores at some tony school somewhere, this is not why he dies as we know he must. Perhaps he dies because he's had a crush on Harris since they were boys and chooses the wedding as the time to give Harris a full-mouth stolen smackeroo. But mostly Budd dies because he's careless and who can you blame for that except his uptight parents.
Which reminds us that this whole episode is the flashing life of aged Ann in her last moments and bears a lesson for Constance who runs toward the uptight, although being a half-century more modern than the wedding-goers, she's sometimes willing to condemn in the hearing of others and for Nina, who is secretly pregnant and doesn't know whether to grow up or go pout. For the edification of all, Meryl Streep shows up near the end in an appearance staged to generate the ah haaas Sean Connery produced when he popped in as King Arthur to Richard Gere's Lancelot in First Knight. Streep, who is Mamie Gummer's mother, plays Lila the old wise lady. The picture doesn't give us the first fleeting hint of why these two one-time best friends haven't seen each other in decades, but Lila the wise old lady does deliver this film's stoical message that since nothing really matters everybody can just go get over it. And that's true enough except for those who really like chick flicks.