A good deal of Philip Roth’s piercing humor seeps under the surface of James Schamus’ quite successful adaptation of Indignation, the Pulitzer Prize winner’s 2008 novel (his 29th), but it’s easier to detect in hindsight, since it’s the bleakness of the film and the tragedy of its love story that permeates nearly every frame.
Nevertheless, as we’re introduced to fresh-faced protagonist Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the teenaged son of a Jewish butcher in New Jersey circa 1951, we can gradually suss out the underlying humor as the mother of one Marcus’ high school classmates inquires about our hero’s upcoming move to Ohio. A dedicated student, the “clever boy” will be attending the fictional Winesburg College to receive a liberal arts education on a full scholarship. “How will you keep kosher there?” asks the woman (Joanne Baron), who has no idea that Marcus will soon be dining on escargots opposite a transfixing blond shiksa (Sarah Gadon) as he embraces his new life as a freethinking atheist. But then, this punchline is delivered by a grieving mother who’s just lost her son in the Korean War, a fate that Marcus will avoid through his path of scholarship over combat, so we’re not exactly in for belly laughs here.
No one’s laughing less than Marcus’ wildly overprotective father (Danny Burstein), whose compulsive concern for his son’s well-being dips into paranoia, even if his son has dodged what seems like a certain death overseas. Still, perhaps the old man sees something we haven’t yet, qualities that Gadon’s Olivia Hutton, a transfer student from Mount Holyoke, picks up on after just one date with the inexperienced lad: “You are not a simple soul and you have no business being here,” she tells Marcus. His crush on the gorgeous gentile disrupts his view of the world, no more so than when she asks him to make a detour on the way home from their date. There in the front seat of his roommate’s prized 1939 LaSalle Touring Sedan, Olivia gives Marcus what we can assume is his first kiss, before silently opening his trousers and moving her lips below the stunned boy’s belt.
Without knowing how to process her actions—or his emotions—Marcus’ confusion drives him to withdraw from his routines, avoiding not only Olivia, but news from his mother (Linda Emond) regarding his father’s own increasingly irrational behavior, which is spiraling out of control back home in Newark. Focusing on his studies and his job at the campus library, he finds time for little else, especially resenting his obligation to attend Winesburg’s mandatory Wednesday chapel service. Tensions build to a head with his bunkmates, the Shakespeare-quoting Bertram Flusser (Ben Rosenfield) and buttoned-down Ron Foxman (Philip Ettinger), who can’t stomach what transpired in his car. Fisticuffs erupt, forcing Marcus to find a new place to live.
Rejecting the overtures of Sonny Cottler (Pico Alexander), the charismatic president of Winesburg’s lone Jewish fraternity, the independent Marcus instead moves into a dilapidated single room, a development that prompts the film’s stunning centerpiece: Marcus’ tête-à-tête with his bête noire, Dean Hawes Caudwell. Played by Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts, Winesburg’s dean of men is an imposing figure in a three-piece suit, his calm demeanor masking a McCarthyist streak.
This picture marks the directorial debut for Schamus, the former head of Focus Features and a longtime independent film producer and screenwriter known for his collaborations with Oscar-winning director Ang Lee. It’s clear that his time with Lee has been well spent. Schamus is a natural, and he’s committed to a style that is very generous to his actors, as demonstrated by the volatile exchange between Marcus and Caudwell, a two-person scene that takes up 16 minutes of screen time, with very few cuts. The 24-year-old Lerman matches the 51-year-old Letts beat for beat as the industrious freshman answers the dean’s assertion that assimilation will be the key to a bright future, angrily arguing that social and religious obligations are being unfairly imposed upon him. Caudwell responds with condescending praise, saying Marcus is “destined to be an outstanding lawyer,” which only makes the teenager lose more of his composure, sweat increasingly beading on his brow. It’s a talky scene in a talky movie—Schamus has kept much of Roth’s dialogue intact—and it embodies the film’s title incredibly well.
The next time we see Marcus, he’s lying in a hospital bed, where he’ll soon be visited by the two women in his life—Olivia and his mother. All three characters will be presented with choices, and the resulting decisions will change them forever. Roth being Roth, things probably won’t end well, for anyone. Although Schamus has brought much of himself to the film, he hasn’t missed the overriding conclusion of Roth’s novel, where he observes “the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”
Indignation *** 1/2
Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Philip Ettinger, Pico Alexander, Noah Robbins and Tracy Letts. Written and directed by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.