Indignation is a lush tale of a supposedly momentous BJ, a beautiful, tastefully shot, subtly acted adaptation of Philip Roth’s that once again proves that what plays on the page doesn’t always play on the screen. Actually, that’s not quite fair: I haven’t read Indignation, Roth’s 2008 novel about a Jewish kid from Newark going off to college in 1951, so I don’t know for sure that it plays on the page. But from the Roth I have read (a minuscule fraction, to be sure, the man probably wrote another novel in the time it took me to type this sentence), I know that a lot of what propels his stories forward is the literary voice itself. Indignation has strong bookends (the parts that include narration, not coincidentally), and it’s an occasionally compelling slice of Jewish life in 1951. But it’s got no forward momentum. Roth is always his own best character, and when you can’t hear him describing the scene, Indignation just treads water.
In this adaptation, written and directed by producer, screenwriter, and long-time Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus, making his feature directing debut, Indignation‘s protagonist is Marcus Messner, played by Logan Lerman. We meet Marcus at a funeral for his baseball buddy who’s been killed in Korea. As Marcus pays his respects to the grieving mother, she implores him not to go off to war. He tells her he won’t be drafted because he’s going off to college in Ohio. “Ohio?” she recoils. “How are you going to keep kosher there?”
It’s one of a handful of Indignation‘s great lines. The trouble with Marcus is that he has a tendency to be either a cipher — an innocent object for society’s constant indignities, be they WASP intolerance or Jewish hectoring — or a hypersensitive jerk. His parents are overbearing. His peers at Winesburg College (the name a literary reference) in squaresville Ohio constantly offend him, even when they’re just trying to be nice. This usually leads to a pedantic lecture from Marcus about the hypocrisy of the Puritans or the righteous atheism of Bertrand Russell. Everyone bends over backward for him and his only responses seem to be confusion or disdain. The trouble isn’t so much that Marcus is unlikable, though he is, it’s that he’s either henpecked or grandstanding, with no in between. I don’t need to love Marcus, but who is he?
His chief sparring partners are the stuffed shirt Dean Caudwell (played by Tracy Letts, with whom Lerman shares Indignation‘s most dynamic scenes) and a hyperarticulate-but-troubled love interest Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who gives Marcus a BJ on their first date, to his eternal consternation. (It’s probably because her parents are divorced, Marcus thinks.) Now, I know Marcus’ inability to enjoy a blow job and his stubborn rejection of his college dean’s attempts to help him are somehow… connected… and that they’re meant to symbolize… something… it’s just hard to know what that is, other than that Marcus is kind of an asshole.
And even having read as little Philip Roth as I have, it’s impossible not to recognize his signature themes: the obsessive prodigy, the hovering parents, the tragic shiksa, the alienation, the sex act central to the plot. The trouble is that Indignation‘s often-compelling vignettes don’t really add up to much. Indignation finds many meticulously shot and pithy ways to say “He’s an angry young man with nowhere to go,” without attempting to answer the inevitable question, “Yeah, so?”
Marcus is either a sullen dick or a verbose one, and the people around him, well-acted as they are, are kind of “types.” The troubled hottie, the pompous dean, the artsy roommate. One of the most interesting characters is Sonny Cottler (Pico Alexander), the handsome president of Winesburg’s Jewish fraternity, who urges guile to solve problems, telling Marcus that “Guys like Dean Caudwell don’t budge, there’s no point butting heads with them when you can just go around.”
But likable as he is, even Sonny is sort of just the proverbial “mother’s friend’s son” (apparently there’s actually a word for this in Korean), the perfect example who exists to shame Marcus for not living up. In other words, a slightly different way to say the only thing Indignation has to say. I hate to make this criticism because with most non-arthouse movies it’s the precise reverse, but Indignation is the rare example of compelling world-building and nice detail work without enough story to justify it.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.