You know that moment about fifteen minutes before the end of most American narrative features, when the protagonist is brought to his or her low point, and it looks as if there’s no possible way things could get better? Something has probably gone wrong if viewers are cheering that. But the inevitable comeuppance of Submission’s dopey professor Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) stirred applause from me, especially during a pair of scenes in which he’s soundly dressed down by the women in his life — his wife, played by Kyra Sedgwick, and Angela (Addison Timlin), the creative writing student who pens erotic poetry and asks him to read her novel and then, well, oh, you just guess. Writer-director Richard Levine’s adaptation of Francine Prose’s somewhat reactionary 2000 novel Blue Angel exhibits satiric wit as it charts the sore-winner myopia of Professor Swenson, a novelist so shaken by the fact that he has to teach at a second-tier liberal arts college that he just can’t finish his second book. His writers’ workshop is convincingly hellish, and a scene of him railing against the sensitivities of “safe space”–minded students is touched with welcome ambiguity: You’re invited to regard him as either a preening dinosaur or the last sane man left.
Too bad, then, that his relationship with the ambitious, talented, wholly unreliable boundary-pusher Angela plays out exactly as most viewers would expect, with Swenson a patsy for a young woman who claims to have loved his book. You know he’s doomed the moment he says, “Angela, I’m a professor of literature. A little eroticism doesn’t frighten me.” The only suspense lies in wondering whether this film released in 2018 actually is going to unfold like some low-key Nineties Michael Douglas sex thriller set on a college campus, where a temptress rigs the code of sexual misconduct against that most helpless of creatures: a dude professor who has been given every one of life’s advantages. Spoiler: It totally does.
Written and directed by Richard Levine
Opens March 2, Landmark 57