**1/2 out of ****
(for sexual content and some language)
Released: July 29, 2016
Runtime: 110 minutes
Director: James Schamus
Starring: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield
It’s hard to imagine anyone being more prepared for a directorial debut than James Schamus, the screenwriter and producer of multiple Ang Lee landmarks including Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yet for a story based on a novel by acclaimed American author Philip Roth, Indignation is surprisingly, well, rote.
This tale of moral repression in early 1950s Middle America is rarely as charged as its actual title. Its angst never strikes a deeper existential chord in the way Mad Men did, nor does it stir passion and nostalgia as effectively as Best Picture nominee Brooklyn evoked. Indignation is a recreation of a time period that, with two standout scenes excepted, never comes to life.
It’s 1951. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is the son of a Jewish butcher in Newark. As his peers are being sent off to fight in Korea, Marcus is saved from the draft by a scholarship to Winesburg College, a conservative, Protestant university in Ohio where he will study law. Predictably, he falls for a beautiful blonde – Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) – in a romance defined by awkwardness rather than chemistry (one of several miscalculations in a movie with serious intentions).
That ill-fated love story (such as it is), involving a woman scarred by emotional and psychological issues of her own (though we never really learn what they are), is just one layer of a few. More broadly, Indignation is the study of a young man who, despite being disciplined, focused, and motivated, can’t seem to get along with anyone. This academic rebel without a cause is an introvert to a fault, pushing people away almost by instinct, despite being raised by supportive parents and admired by his community. He’s a character that doesn’t make sense, enigmatic but not in a compelling way, yet he’s the protagonist to whom our sympathies should go. That’s asking a lot of an audience.
Not helping matters is the undercooked performance from Logan Lerman (Fury), who plays Marcus. He’s a decent enough actor, he’s just not a convincing one. Lerman makes good choices, interprets scenes well, but he’s all technique and lacks spontaneity. He gives an affected, calculated performance, not a natural one. Furthermore, he fails to bring a conviction to Marcus’s atheistic worldview, spewing philosophies he’s read but not truly intellectualized – or had the life experience to grant perspective to – making it abrasive and petulant (even arrogant) rather than principled.
By contrast is Tracy Letts, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (August: Osage County) and stage actor, and his theatrical background serves him well. He’s only in a handful of scenes but, as the head of Winesburg (and Marcus’s primary antagonist), Letts’s dean Caudwell gives the movie an intellectual and kinetic juice that it otherwise mostly lacks.
An extended two-hander between Caudwell and Marcus, about halfway through, feels as if it’s been plucked off the stage fully formed. Letts carries the scene, never reducing Caudwell to simplified authoritarianism (even if he does intend to intimidate), and he elevates Lerman along with him. It’s the only scene in which actual ideas are bandied about, and makes for a superb short film stuck in the middle of a rather laborious feature.
Suffice it to say, when the antagonist ends up making more sense than the protagonist – even if he wields his wisdom in a bullish manner – the story ends up having a severe problem with its point of view. And when Caudwell, in effect, ends up being proven right, that undercuts the very progressive ideals that the protagonist embodies. Yet given how clearly Schamus wants us to sympathize with Marcus, the result is a movie that you’re not sure how to feel about.
The only other scene of note comes later, between Marcus and his mother Esther (Linda Emond), as she implores him to stop seeing the troubled Olivia. Like Letts, Emond brings wisdom to a character that could otherwise be seen as forcing tradition and expectations upon Marcus’s right to personal freedom, or condescending to his own ability to discern. Even Marcus’s well-intended peers try to help but are viewed with skeptical eyes, further clouding our ability to read and interpret context correctly.
And poor Sarah Gadon. Her Olivia Hutton isn’t a fully drawn character but merely a thematic cipher. She’s there simply to serve as a catalyst for a lead character that seems hell bent on staying stuck in his own view of things, and her presence is far too dependent on literally getting him off. (I can imagine the casting interview: “You want me to do what to him? And how often?) It serves a purpose, ultimately, but with virtually none of Olivia’s background fleshed out to enlighten the causality of her actions, her conduct lacks motive, it forces empathy, and feels gratuitous.
For a star-crossed romance to be effective, aside from chemistry (which these two lack), you have to believe the two deserve to be together, and should be, if not for the cruel winds of fate and/or oppression. But the movie, rather inadvertently (it seems), ends up making the case that they shouldn’t be. If Schamus intended otherwise, then he shouldn’t have made it so easy to agree with Marcus’s mother that he’d be better off without her.
In the end, Indignation – handsomely crafted though it may be – is a complete and total downer, with no insight for consolation. It’s about the dangers of being way too uptight and, well, self-righteously indignant. I just don’t know if it meant to be. Why so dubious? Because that takeaway comes from the arc of the hero, not the forces against him.