I have never read a book by Philip Roth. Sometimes I’m inspired to read the book before I see a movie to critique if the film adaptation is a successful transition to the screen. Indignation is not one of those cases, so I went in cold.
I have, however, seen a few of Roth’s film adaptations, which have never been fully successful movies. The Human Stain was a mess – but an intriguing one – mainly because Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins made an interesting pairing. Indignation is a problematic film but, strangely enough, makes me want to read the book to see what is missing from the film.
Indignation is the directorial debut of former studio head James Schamus, who oversaw the production of most of Ang Lee’s films, and garnered an Oscar nomination as a producer of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He has since left Focus Features and now is trying his hand at directing features. His first attempt behind the camera is a milquetoast effort at a would-be Oscar bait drama.
In Indignation, Logan Lerman stars as Marcus, a college-bound student, who grew up in a working-class Jewish family. His parents (played by Danny Burnstein and Linda Emond) want him to stay close to home – dad, particularly – but Marcus is desperate to get away from the family meat market business. There is a whole world Marcus hasn’t seen outside of Jersey and he is ready to explore.
He attends college in Ohio, where he goes to class, studies and makes $18 a week working in the library. Unexpectedly, Marcus’ focus is derailed when he meets Olivia (Sarah Gadon), who is a girl with an interesting past. Marcus knows she is not right for him but he is drawn to her wild spirit.
Indignation explores coming-of-age themes and sexual repression, which we have seen time-and-time again, but it situates itself in the foreground of the Korean War. There are plenty of opportunities to make the film a layered exploration of social life in the midst of war but Indignation often feels lost, struggling to find its footing. There is no discernable plot trajectory, which makes for a flat viewing experience. What’s this film’s thesis? I haven’t a clue.
As for helming a straightforward drama, Schamus demonstrates an apt vision behind the camera but the problems are within the story. This is was makes me interested to read Roth’s novel – what was cut from his original vision? Schamus’ script doesn’t have much of an emotional pull, as we should expect from watching someone discover who they are outside of their family
Lerman continues to prove himself a promising young actor, who has previously delivered strong performances in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and his MVP role in Fury. His interpretation of Marcus is both naïve and confident – a young person who thinks he has it figured out but really doesn’t have a clue. He and Gadon have an interesting, if never compelling, chemistry.
Some of the best moments in Indignation are when Marcus faces off with the prickly Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). Letts delivers a fine supporting performance but there isn’t enough of him to salvage Indignation into being something worthwhile.
5 out of 10