Film

On the Screen, Roth’s ‘Indignation’ Only Fitfully Comes to Spiteful Life

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Writer Keith Gessen once said that Philip Roth wasn’t a misogynist and didn’t hate women because he spent all his time “thinking about fucking them.” But he did concede that Roth probably thought “women were a foreign country.” In James Schamus’ debut feature Indignation, an adaptation of a late Roth novel of the same name, women are indeed foreign countries, and the protagonist, Marcus (Logan Lerman), thinks a lot about fucking them — or, rather, one of them in particular. Unfortunately, he chooses the one most likely to tear him apart with her unbridled desire for male genitalia.

Marcus makes straight-As like it’s his second job, after assisting his father at the family’s kosher butcher shop. In voiceover, he explains that every choice a person makes leads them further down their own fateful roads, both bad and good. It’s 1955, and his cousins are, one by one, sent off to Korea to get skewered on bayonets. To escape service, he enrolls at a university in Winesburg, Ohio (a nod to Sherwood Anderson), where life is square but for one promiscuous, blonde-and-blue-eyed young woman, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon).

Marcus’ irascibility is evident from the outset, as he quarrels with his suddenly overprotective father. Olivia insists that Marcus is “intense,” and he has zero tolerance for the existence of his two roommates, Bertram Flusser (Ben Rosenfield) and Ron Foxman (Philip Ettinger). When Olivia gives Marcus an unprovoked blowjob on their first date, he’s left wondering why and how a girl would do such a thing. But, obviously, he likes it, and as he pursues Olivia further — even though everyone calls her a “slut” — we’re told in so many words in voiceover that this is one of the first choices that leads him down a bad road. Very Old Testament, right? Marcus wants more, and Olivia is obliged to give it, and a few handjobs later, he’s somehow undone. Oh, and Olivia says she’s suicidal.

Most often, Schamus, who’s a frequent writing and producing collaborator with Ang Lee, takes the material too seriously, overexcited to show off the impeccable period production design and let his actors run amok with long scenes and little focus on the overall arc. It’s difficult to care about anybody. Sure, Rosenfield is charismatic and easy on the eyes, but how many Shakespeare monologues should he get if he’s just going to disappear in the second half of the story?

At better times, however, the clashes and conversations take on a tone similar to the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, both acknowledging the protagonist’s hardships while poking fun at his grave demeanor. An excellent, hilarious 15-minute verbal sparring match between Marcus and the school’s dean (Tracy Letts) is both an overindulgence — so many of the characters need fleshing out — but also a welcome burst of laughter in a self-serious picture.

While the initial voiceover leads the audience to believe that this will be a kind of warped morality tale, Indignation instead depicts a few things happening here and there with no urgency or drive to the narrative. And let’s not dwell on Olivia, who comes complete with a little worm of a scar across her wrist, like she’s some kind of Sylvia Plath Barbie doll with the devil’s apple accessory. Indignation has many of the ingredients of a good movie — actors, designers and cinematographers at the top of their game — but somebody forgot to mix them up put them in the oven before Olivia could get her head in there.