Overview: A Jewish student leaves New Jersey to attend school in Ohio, where he meets a young lady and confronts the dean of the school. Summit Entertainment/Roadside Attractions; 2016; Rated R; 110 Minutes.
Julian and Philip, in a Tree, K-i-s-s-i-n-g: Pop quiz, hotshot: Who’s the greatest living american writer? Cormac McCarthy? Great, sure, and intense, but can you bring him home to your mother? Michael Chabon? Only if you hate any sentence shorter than 100 words. Thomas Pynchon? He could die, and it would be at least seven months before any of us knew about it. Toni Morison? I’m sorry, have you read Tar Baby? Stephen King? I think I may be sick.
YOU FOOLS, there’s only one acceptable answer: Philip Roth. Eighty-three years now he’s been Newark’s very own chronicler of meat-related masturbatory episodes, inciter of that eternal male-female blood war, exploder of moral indecision, and foremost literary ambassador of the Jewish culture, though, he probably would rather not be the latter. Nobody tells stories like Roth, but everybody wants to, which is of course why we now have to put up with Alex Ross Perry. It’s weird, then, that just about every movie that has thus far been made from a Roth story kinda sucks. 1969’s Goodbye Columbus was torn-down and rebuilt from the ground-up as a Graduate knock-off, likewise Portnoy’s Complaint— firmly establishing their shared lead actor, Richard Benjamin, as the dread mascot of crappy Roth adaptations. Elegy and The Human Stain took two of Roth’s saddest books and worked them through the attenuating spaghetti strainer of middlebrow hackery. And while I have not seen Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, by all accounts it’s banana-bread cuckoo-clock insane. All of which is to say, the filmmakers behind Indignation had a low bar to clear. Lucky for us, they pulverized it.
For fans of Roth, Indignation is the superhero movie of the year, and its caped crusader is named James Schamus. In making his debut behind the camera, the co-scripter of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and former CEO of Focus Features has selflessly ceded the stage to the long-suffering New Jersey master, giving him his first ever taste of cinematic success—a victory he has as much a part to play in as the filmmakers themselves. The work Schamus does here is so invisible, so humble, that it’s dangerously easy—as I did in the previous sentence—to diminish it. Therefore, it’s important to remember that no matter how effortless seeming the result, making a faithful adaptation is not as simple as pasting pages over a camera lens. Indignation’s sparse but period-rich locations and static, dead-on camera set-ups set aside the ideal empty space within which to insert its author’s booming voice. So snug a fit for Roth is Schamus, it’s kind of maddening that he chose to adapt Indignation, of all things.
Gotta Be Objective, Though: Indignation is one of Roth’s weakest novels (i.e. still better than 99% of American Literature), with a strange, perversely uncinematic structure that creates real problems—even as its slim nature (233 pages) would seem to signpost it as an ideal candidate for the screen. The book has a reputation among Roth fans as a kind of strange experiment—a return to the milieu of the writer’s youth but without the levity that defined those earlier novels. It’s very clearly an old man’s tale of his younger self, and is accordingly obsessed with the steps that we take, invariably leading us to death. It’s a chain reaction narrative, unique in that its falling dominoes are only perceptible from beyond this mortal coil. The ghostly view in question belongs to Marcus Messner (embodied with extraordinary control by Logan Lerman), a young man who heads off to fictional Winesburg college in Ohio, seeking only to concentrate on his studies, a course he’s invariably swayed from as he butts heads with the smiling brick-wall of a dean (Tracy Letts) and finds himself drawn into the tractor beam of the distressingly inquisitive Olivia (Sarah Gadon). The film consists largely of lengthy conversations between Marcus and either of these two characters, and when it sticks to that it’s essentially perfect, rivaling Love & Friendship as 2016’s foremost feast of the English language. Unfortunately, Indignation has some gotta-adapt-it-all tendencies, giving us a hugely unnecessary subplot about Marcus’s workaholic dad—which smelled of bloat even in the source novel—dragging things down just before we hit the final, most crucial stretch of narrative.
Overall: You don’t need to be a Roth groupie to get a real thrill out of Indignation. The wonders of its crackling dialogue, precise formalism, and clashing performances are entirely self-evident. But if your bookshelf looks anything like mine, get psyched.
Featured Image: Summit Entertainment/Roadside Attractions