Aug 2, 2016
Adapting Philip Roth novels to the movies is a Sisyphean task and one that has encountered failure almost every time it has been attempted. I can understand why writers welcome the challenge. They are seduced by Roth's plots and incident, historical context, and indelible characters with clearly dramatic arcs, and by the devastating precision of his writing. But when it comes to bringing Roth's brilliant incisiveness to the screen, all that remains is incident, devoid of the lucid sharpness of the author's voice. The movies are either leaden, humorless, miscast, or dead in the water. I'm thinking of The Human Stain, with Anthony Hopkins as a light-skinned Black man, the forgettable Elegy, and the sharp but sloppy The Humbling, which at least has Al Pacino and the comic touch of Barry Levinson.
James Schamus' adaptation of Indignation is the best one so far because, at the risk of a stately pace, Schamus gives a starring role to language. This movie is not so much about acting, but about thinking, and arguing, and there are a lot of wonderful sentences in it. The story is drawn out and depressing, a dark coming of age tale, but the movie is riveting.
Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, a young Jewish man from Newark who transfers to a Christian college in Ohio in order to avoid getting drafted into the Korean war. His father (Danny Burstein) is a kosher butcher, and the great Linda Emond plays his mother, Esther. Marcus is an only child of prodigious intelligence, and he is swathed in youthful arrogance. He is impatient with his dad's small town mores and his overwhelming anxiety about letting Marcus blossom into a man. As in many a Rothian tale, Indignation is about the tension between the old world and the new. Too many of his son's classmates are finding death in Korea, but if it's not Korea, it's Ohio, and if it's not Ohio, it's Marcus going out with friends in Newark. When we first encounter him, Marcus is coming home late at night as his mother waits for him stoically in the living room. His father is frantically looking for him all over town. America and its promise beckon, and Marcus does not want to remain in the mental shtetl his father still lives in.
On a personal note, I was blown away by Roth when I read Portnoy's Complaint as a freshman in college. I swore he must have met my mother, whose need to investigate my bowel movements inspired him to create Portnoy's mom; Jewish mothers being to deciphering their children's turds as Holmes and Watson are to solving crimes. Furthermore, my dad used to make my mother wait for me when I went out, just like Mr. Messner. I have since decided that Philip Roth knows everything, and I love him for laying bare (and how!) the deepest and most anxious reaches of Jewish identity.
Marcus arrives in Winesburg College, a genteel school that puts him in a dorm room with two other Jews, and makes them all attend chapel services with the polite but firm prejudice of America in the fifties.
An overly serious law student, Marcus gets derailed by a beautiful blonde Wasp, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who is also different from all the squares. For such a young girl, she has already been through terrible emotional turmoil. The two outsiders hit it off. This is enough to spark a quiet yet combustible chain of actions that lead to tragedy.
The centerpiece of the movie is a 16-minute conversation between Marcus and the dean of the school, a condescending but avuncular midwesterner played with extraordinary acuity by Tracy Letts, who deserves every best supporting actor award in perpetuity for his performance.
It's a beautifully written piece of dramatic writing. The dean summons Marcus to inquire as to why he moved to another room (a crummy attic all to himself). He pretends to want to help while he gleefully unnerves the young man. He gets a rise out of Marcus, singling out his Jewishness and questioning whether Marcus is ashamed of it (he denies it, but I think Marcus walks a private tightrope between pride and shame, as many do). The indignant Marcus pushes the Dean's buttons by affirming his atheism and his intellectual superiority. But as the discussion heats up and the unflappable dean pries into Marcus' private life, Marcus hyperventilates to the point of nausea.
He lands in the hospital. His mother comes to see him. She takes one look at sweet, fragile Olivia, and confirms she's the worst kind of trouble. Not because she's not Jewish, which is what everyone expects her to say, but because with people like Olivia "their weakness is their strength", one of the smartest things I've ever heard said about damaged people.
Emond also deserves every award in the land. It turns out that Esther, as frumpy as she looks, is much more ahead of the times than both her husband and her son, but as a woman in the fifties she is their subordinate, which is probably the reason why she has a freer mind. When you are an afterthought, you have more room to think.
This is a world of men who fight wars and call all the shots, whether they're the dean, or the son of a butcher, or the rich father of a lost soul. In this world, women are peripheral. They use their brains and their hearts as best they can to make a dent.
Indignation is a movie in which complicated things happen. People are not stock characters, they have unpredictable dimensions. The ironies they suffer are thick and bitter. Marcus' ire is ultimately useless, and few things are more tragic than futile indignation.