Producer James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk) has been
a fixture in successful Hollywood films for many years, often those those in which he also serves as screenwriter (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). At 57, makes his directoial debut with this adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel Indignation. Yet despite a beautifully crafted script and a trio superb performances, this exploration of Roth’s reflections on his own years as a college student never escapes the impression that it’s really a modest, off-Broadway play in disguise.
24 year-old Logan Lerman plays Marcus, the only child of a New Jersey butcher who is beginning to exhibit signs of mental illness as his son wins a scholarship to attend a “waspy” liberal arts midwestern college in 1951. Bright, intense and given to impatience with anything he sees as social or intellectually insincere, Marcus faces social exclusion because of his Jewishness and aloof personality. But a lovely blond shiksa named Olivia, (Sarah Gadon) changes all that; with smiles and sidelong glances, she signals Marcus that she’s available. Yet at the end of their very first date, she stuns him with an act of intimacy as unexpected as it is unnecessary. When he confides his confusion about this encounter to his randomly assigned roomates, they make his life so miserable he requests a transfer to another room.
That decision brings him into conflict with Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) who epitomizes everything about the gentile world that Marcus despises; smug acceptance of social superiority, insistance on arcane rules of behavoir designed to control student conduct and most importantly, the assertion of authority based on what Marcus sees as fraudlent intellectual convictions. As his academic year progresses, Marcus’ feelings for the gentle but mentally wounded Olivia deepen even as Caudwell grows ever more convinced that he must break Marcus of his irrascible independence. The tension between these two begets a rules violation which triggers an academic explusion that spirals into malestrom…
As the star-crossed lovers, Lerman and Gadon are immensly appealing; sweetly awkward with each other and forever tittering between premature intimacy and insightful inquiry into each other’s characters. As the officious dean, Letts personifies the type of smug Ivy League psuedo-intellectual who assumes his opinions have the force of self-evident and irrefutable logic. Yet the script’s elegantly polished lines never give the characters the chance to really come alive; the results more closely resemble an academic discourse on the tensions betweeen institutional requirements vs. the right of personal expression and this sense of detachment isn’t well served by the movie’s unrealistically forced denoumont.
The Verdict? A well-crafted exploration of Roth’s novel that fails to achieve its lofty intentions.
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