Film Review: Submission

'Wonder Boys' meets 'The Human Stain' in this lightly amusing riff on 'The Blue Angel' in which a frustrated literature professor is energized by the attentions, literary and otherwise, of a young student.
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The scenery that greets viewers at the start of Richard Levine’s Submission is that of pretty much every movie ever set on a college campus: fall colors, sun-dappled quad, stately brick buildings and all the bourgeois trappings of cosseted small-town intelligentsia. The narration running over the montage has more vinegar to it, as Professor Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) grumbles about being trapped in this “isolated and inbred” sanctuary of intellectual mediocrity. What follows is unfortunately more in keeping with the visuals then the dialogue.

Swenson’s biting commentary sprawls over into the writing class that he would utterly despise teaching if not for the presence of Angela Argo (Addison Timlin). She is in possession of two characteristics lacked by her classmates: talent and perception. Angela is a canteen of cool water slaking the thirst of his writer’s block. It also helps when she tells him Phoenix Time, his acclaimed first novel which he’s been trying to follow up for a decade, “is like my favorite book in the universe.” When she asks him ever so meekly to read the first chapter of her pile of “pages in search of a novel,” he of course accepts. More chapters follow, mixing an overwrought analogy about eggs with heated passages about a young woman having an affair with an older man. Then the phone calls begin.

Swenson doesn’t just miss the freight train that’s about to blast his life into smithereens, he steers right into it. He blithely ignores every warning sign, from the background on Angela provided by unimpressed fellow teacher Magda Moynahan (Janeane Garofalo, a bright and too-brief presence) to Angela’s alternately sycophantic and demanding attitude. Because that serene overconfidence is packaged by Tucci, who can deliver easygoing charm with less effort than almost any other working actor, Swenson reads as far less insufferable than he should be. For a time, Swenson’s good humor with his highly accommodating wife Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) and low-key rebelling against school politics and lazy students almost masks the enormity of what he’s about to demolish.

Levine adapted Submission from Francine Prose’s 2000 novel Blue Angel. A rollicking satire of academic pretensions and stultifying political correctness, Prose’s book took its name and inspiration from Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 melodrama in which seductress Marlene Dietrich brings professor Emil Jannings to utter ruin. Levine’s adaptation works well with the spine of Prose’s book, the puffed-up fool dashing toward his doom and the ice-cold femme fatale coating her web in flattery. But the story is about more than the snapping together of a cleverly laid trap. Nearly all of Prose’s satire on male vanity and the muddy tangles of sexual-harassment politics is cleaved away, with only the odd reference to “safe spaces” trying to keep the movie relevant.

That’s probably for the best. Cleanly written and brightly acted, Submission is an effectively delivered comedy on artistic conceit that probably would have buckled under the weight of more subtext. But it’s hard not to wish, especially in the final scenes where Swenson deals with the fallout of his catastrophically bad decision, that the consequences could have had at least a dash of the pain that great novels are written about and Swenson thought he was risking everything for.

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