Directed by: James Schamus.
Written by: James Schamus based on the novel by Philip Roth.
Starring: Logan Lerman (Marcus), Sarah Gadon (Olivia Hutton), Tracy Letts (Dean Caudwell), Linda Emond (Esther Messner), Ben Rosenfield (Bertram Flusser), Pico Alexander (Sonny Cottler), Philip Ettinger (Ron Foxman), Danny Burstein (Max Messner), Noah Robbins (Marty Ziegler).
Philip Roth is one of the great American novelists on the 20th Century, and yet his work has never really been adapted to the screen all that well – and filmmakers have generally not even bothered to try. Novels like The Human Stain are brilliant – the novel is an examination of race and class in America, which is by turns funny and tragic, but when put on screen lies flat and is little more than a collection of interesting ideas in search of a movie. The most recent adaptation – The Humbling, starring Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig, may have been an improvement on the book – which was a parade of endless misery, which the filmmakers smartly decide to make into a comedy, although they don’t solve all of the problems of the novel – especially the Gerwig character herself, who the film, like the novel, never cracks. So it comes as a pleasant surprise that James Schamus’ Indignation ends up being the best Roth adaptation to date – and one of the year’s best movies so far. The film captures that strange tone of Roth’s – between comic and tragic, and the anger at the heart of much of his work about death bearing down on us all. It is a novel based, in part, on Roth’s own life in the 1950s – as a college student, struggling against the tide that wants him to assimilate – and being punished for it.
The film stars Logan Lerman as Marcus Messner – a Jewish kid from Newark, who works for his father, a kosher butcher. He has a scholarship to a University in Ohio, and heads out there with a plan of being a lawyer. He is a smart kid, and likes to argue, but it doesn’t take him long to get himself into some trouble. He is “coincidentally” assigned to room with two other Jews – the only two male Jewish students not in the Jewish fraternity, but he doesn’t quite fit in there. He meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) in class and asks her out. After dinner, she asks him to pull the car over to the side of the road and gives him a blowjob. This confuses him greatly – why would she do that? It’s a question he cannot let go of, and perhaps it’s what ultimately sets in motion the rest of the disasters waiting to befall him – which he largely brings on himself. Marcus is drawn to Olivia – who after all is beautiful and glamorous, but she is also damaged and fragile – someone who has already tried to kill herself, and may do so again. This makes her all the more interesting to Marcus – who nevertheless, doesn’t fully understand her, or even try to. He’s too self-obsessed and self-analytical, and after all, there’s no other girls lining up to touch his penis. He uses her to be sure – but he does feel conflicted about it.
The centerpiece of the film – the scene that everyone will end up talking about – is a lengthy one between Marcus and Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), the school administrator who calls Marcus into his office to discuss his “difficulty adjusting” to college life. Dean Caudwell is pious, arrogant, and self-righteous – but he also never once raises his voice. He needles Marcus, who gets himself more and more worked up and angry. In this scene, the movie shows just how intelligent Marcus is – but also, how naïve he can be. No one but a college freshman would make the arguments he makes – even if he does have a point. Caudwell has, undoubtedly, seen a version of this young man in office before, and knows just how to play him. The scene is a masterful two hander between Letts and Lerman – and easily one of the best single scenes of the years.
The film was written and directed by James Schamus. It’s his directorial debut, after a long career as a screenwriter and producer (and head of Focus Features). By necessity, he streamlines Roth’s novel, telling a more linear story, with fewer digressions. This makes the film less daring than the novel was – which is arguably the best of Roth’s late novels. The film is a tragedy, although one in which the main character largely brings it upon himself. The film is at turns funny, tragic, ironic, angry and bitter – and at every moment perfectly handled by the cast and the screenplay. It’s also not the last Roth adaptation to be coming out this year – Ewan McGregor’s long gestating American Pastoral is about to hit the fall festival circuit, based on Roth’s best novel (at least, to me, his best). Here’s hoping it’s even close to as good as Indignation.