First-time feature director James Schamus, who as Ang Lee‘s longtime producer has overseen various extraordinarily successful literary adaptations, turns in a sincere but disappointingly timid rendering of Philip Roth‘s 29th book. Though he gets fine performances from many quarters — a gentle Logan Lerman is a surprising and interesting choice to play a young man frequently described as “intense,” while Tracy Letts and Linda Edmond are outstanding — the film is scuppered by an approach that sees it build on the bones of the novel without ever quite animating its heart. Of course, comparisons between the printed word and the filmed screenplay are always unfair, but in the case of “Indignation” they feel inevitable, as though there has to be some accounting for a relatively faithful rendering of the narrative of a lively, wise novel feeling so familiar and low-energy as a film.
One example of a literary conceit that, when translated literally to screen, drains the picture of its verve, is that the film is bookended by brief scaled-down scenes set during the Korean War, but actually takes place in a world so pointedly alien from that it might as well be another planet. The small Ohio college that Marcus Messner (Lerman), an overachieving, serious-minded Jewish butcher’s boy from New Jersey, attends is a picture-perfect place: all leafy quads, clean-cut young men and girls in full, calf-length skirts whose floral patterns match their lipsticks. Here, far away from bayonets and bullets, the chief sources of friction for our young hero are that his Jewish heritage (he himself protests that he is atheist) puts him in a disdained minority, and the girl he likes puts out too quickly. And, of course, his own self-defeating tendency toward a kind of stubborn intellectual superiority that finds him repeatedly dying on the wrong hill, metaphorically speaking.
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This small college represents Marcus’ escape from his doting but overprotective parents, particularly his father whose anxiety about young men from the neighborhood dying in Korea manifests itself as paranoia about Marcus’ whereabouts, the company he keeps, and his safety. Father’s fears are unfounded, though, as even once he’s out of their sight, Marcus intends no bad behavior — he dislikes his (Jewish) roommates, refuses to join the Jewish fraternity because he doubts the seriousness of frat life, and generally buries himself in academic work. Until, that is, a fateful glimpse of a bobbing bare leg belonging to Olivia Hutton (a convincing Sarah Gadon).
Even then, Marcus is all formality, turning up at her campus residence, complete with requisite disapproving matron, to wait nervously for her in the lobby and then take her to a too-fancy dinner in a borrowed car. But Olivia’s sophisticated allure is a facade masking a kind of trembly fragility. And the unprompted blowjob she gives him on the way home marks her abrupt descent from unattainable creature of fantasy to real, living, complicated person with feet of clay and a nasty self-inflicted scar on her inside wrist.
As a pivot point for the film, it’s certainly ripe with potential as we follow Marcus’ stumbling attempts to understand her behavior in the context of his own naively rigid ideas of propriety. We also trace the longer-term fallout, of reputations ruined and academic careers endangered by a few careless words to the wrong roommate and a feverish (literally) exchange with the Dean about fitting in, shaping up, and the dangers of believing too much in the writings of Bertrand Russell. Far from the actual life-or-death decisions that the faraway war represents, Marcus’ serious-minded yet comparatively frivolous concerns at college are esoteric questions of pragmatism vs. hypocrisy, and how to live an authentic life. Even though they’re deeply felt by our sensitive hero at the time, it’s hard not to see these sophomoric growing pains as pretty low-stakes, especially in a narrative that will insistently re-contextualize them in the shadow of a devastating and bloody conflict.
That said, there are moments, whole sections even, when the film abandons its comfy, old-fashioned approach. Chief among them is that crackling centerpiece scene between Marcus and Letts’ Dean, which unfolds almost like a one-act play. It starts off in familiar territory but then extends, letting the conversation range from antagonistic to paternalistic to patronizing to mutinous. For a classically shot, densely verbose, idea-heavy scene, it’s remarkably gripping. Similarly, later on a dialogue between Marcus and his mother has the same sort of fascinated attention to the currents that flow within and beneath the things we say, as does a brief hospital scene between Marcus and Olivia. Suddenly you think of how, with a little more formal daring, this whole film could have simply been a series of complex, nuanced one-on-one conversations between Marcus and the people who have been important in his life. A braver, more visionary approach like that, in the context of the end reveal, might also have made a deeper kind of sense.
But the impact of those moments is dulled, absorbed by so much been-there, done-that period movie stuffing, so for most of the film’s runtime, the proceedings feel inconsequential. Maybe that, after all, is the film’s primary flaw: its shape is such that its bid for importance comes too late to entirely compensate for the not-terribly-dramatic drama of a bright young man’s first months at college, no matter how incident-packed. That anti-drama is part of the point: the tragedy of this tiny story is that it is so tiny, so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But in the moment that can make it hard to really invest in, and so despite Schamus’ undoubted good intentions, the committed but largely uninspired “Indignation” suggests that somewhere in a dusty cave, the Holy Grail that is a Philip Roth film adaptation which does full justice to the great writer’s work, remains undisturbed. [C+]