Directed by: James Schamus
Starring: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts
Rated R for sexual content and some language.
1 hr. 50 min.
It’s been 40 years since Jaws scared the seaweed out of beachgoers. Since then, summer has been the domain of would-be box office blockbusters. We’re talking 90 minutes or more, out of the sun, in the cool AC of the theater, with bankable names, sophisticated special effects and cacophonous explosions. Rare has been the time when a film derived from the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist could outshine the glare or be heard over the din. Anyone making time in the Cineplex to see Indignation will agree that a rarity has arrived in time for summer 2016’s last month.
Philip Roth has spent his adult life documenting/fictionalizing the Jewish-American experience, therefore, the deeply American experience. Yet few of his novels have translated so well to the screen. Goodbye, Columbus was memorable in its time; The Human Stain failed to effectively capture the brutal ironies of the book. Indignation, adapted by James Schamus, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter and one-time Focus Films head, succeeds in bringing Roth’s work to life with every emotion intact.
That it’s the maiden voyage for Schamus as a director adds to the marvel of this movie. It’s a trip through time to the early 1950s, a difficult era in which not to be WASPy or virginal. Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), in turn, rivets and mesmerizes as Marcus Messner, a butcher’s son in Newark. He’s a scholar, leaving home (to his parents’ pride and consternation) for a stolid Christian university outside Cleveland — as friends his age are drafted into the military and perish in the Korean War.
Once on campus, rooming with the only other two Jewish students not in the school’s Jewish fraternity, Marcus looks across his history class and is enraptured by a glowing aura, in the form of Olivia Hutton (a flawless Sarah Gadon), a “thunderbolt” moment that sweeps him away.
It’s the dynamic between these two, and the audacity of Marcus’ intellectual independence, that form the crux of the story: a young man with a different background dealing with classmates, an unctuous dean (portrayed by playwright Tracy Letts, who’s just as good before the camera as he was scripting August: Osage County), and this vision, a shiksa goddess with hints of a troubled past.
Besides confrontations with the roommates and a memorable duel with the dean, Marcus must, as an only child, deal with his parents (Linda Emond and Danny Burstein). A visit from his mother brings forth the kind of advice that was prevalent at the time and sounds more convincing once age cements opinion: “When the child goes wrong, look to the family.”
What transpires is at times rife with Roth’s wit, transfixing, girthsome with strong performances and the overriding realization that nostalgia can be a deceptive emotion. Everyone feels strongly about the tender years, one way or another, when youth and hope intertwine. The placid memories gloss over the reality. Unlike last year’s Brooklyn, a lovely and fulfilling movie, Indignation reminds us that those years were not an immaculately sublime place to be. It was a period of great repression and judgmental behavior. No author has ripped the scabs off this decade better than Philip Roth, or with more power, pain and biting humor.
Indignation, very satisfyingly, does all this in what seems like a short time, but is never heavy-handed. This is a movie of deceptive depth that entertains right through the final frames. Note well that it has opened in late summer, lest we forget its strength at year’s end. Our current time is freer, less buttoned-down than the 1950s, but Indignation demonstrates how youth is always searching, that love is always indiscriminate, and life is not always fair. That’s what you take away from this well-adapted, well-made, well-acted, exceptional motion picture.