Film Review: Indignation

Partly, maybe largely autobiographical Philip Roth story about a studious Jewish kid from a working-class family trying to find his way at a small, semi-elite college in 1951 has an authentic exterior but too little beneath the surface.
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Writer-director and current Columbia University professor James Schamus, the highly regarded indie veteran with impressive credits who produced for Ang Lee and co-founded Focus Features, makes a worthy directing debut here. But Indignation, as the title might suggest, tends toward cold, dark and abstract, and whether many viewers beyond Roth fans will warm to it is questionable.

The main problem is that the story—essentially a college-set coming-of-age, sexual-awakening tale—needed higher stakes. (The source material might have hobbled that effort.) What seems like an attempt at a remedy—a strange, what’s-this-about montage tease at the beginning (a Korean battle zone, an old age home) and its resolution at the end—doesn’t make up for what’s missing in between.

In between includes Newark, New Jersey, where we meet only child Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), serious about his studies and beating the draft by going off to college on a scholarship. After a glimpse of what his life in Newark has been (there’s synagogue, a funeral, the butcher shop, the grey/brown neighborhood), the plot follows Marcus as he leaves the modest home he shares with coping mother Esther (the fine stage actress Linda Emond) and his worrier butcher father Max (Danny Burstein).

At the fictitious and leafy Winesburg College (a stand-in for Bucknell, which Roth attended), Marcus confronts a familiar roommate problem: He doesn’t fit in with the guys. And no wonder. Bertram (Ben Rosenfield) is effusively artsy and Ron (Philip Ettinger) is just too glum. Both guys are Jewish, as Jewish students back in the day were thrown together in colleges like Winesburg. The icky roommate situation impels Marcus to request a new room, a simple act that will turn explosive.

Marcus soon finds himself attracted to another student, which evolves into a peculiar romantic situation with troubled blonde shiksa goddess Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a familiar kind many Marcuses dream of. An obsession will develop.

An even stranger problem arises by way of Caudwell (actor/playwright Tracy Letts), the college’s dean of men, who is incomprehensibly distressed that Marcus has requested a room change. With a strange obsession of his own, he won’t let Marcus off the hook he has fabricated.

Olivia, known for bestowing blowjobs around campus (Roth’s signature shows up in several of the film’s phallocentric moments), also becomes a cultural challenge for Marcus. Although psychologically wounded, she’s from an upper-class WASP family and, unlike Marcus, knows her way around a haute cuisine menu.

Their romance, even as Marcus’ obsession for her grows, and Marcus’ ongoing tangle with the overreacting Caudwell and his fury (even to the point of a physical fight) still make for slow going through this campus tour and through the detours taken to remind that Marcus is a serious student who has been hitting the books.

Marcus’ other dilemmas include a bout of appendicitis landing him in the hospital. (Olivia visits to perform her own brand of healing under his sheets.) And he’s pitched by Jewish fraternity president Sonny (a terrific Pico Alexander) to join up but continues to waffle.

In another turn, Marcus learns that Olivia has left campus suddenly and won’t return. And mother Esther shows up with the shocking news that she hates his father and is seeking a divorce.

Lerman doesn’t convincingly inhabit his character and Gadon’s Olivia is not a character to warm to in any way. The spark that does give light to this film comes from Alexander’s charismatic Sonny, someone you want to hang out with and learn more about.

Indignation is a carefully crafted piece and the ’50s era convincingly resounds via handsome production design and well-chosen locations. But these are external pleasures. What’s missing is a soul, emotional moments, even heart and compelling conflict to pull us into this cold body.

Jewish viewers of a certain age who attended similar colleges will connect with the paranoia and latent, when not blatant, anti-Semitism in this film’s musty academic grove. But such reminders are best delivered by characters to care about.

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