Indignation (2016)

Dir. James Schamus. Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts

Rather than reading American Pastoral or Portnoy’s Complaint for the millionth times, the first Philip Roth novel I read after his death was one I’d never read before. Indignation, a slim and recent addition to his oeuvre, was at the library; so was Indignation, the film adaptation. I read the book one day and watched the movie the next, which is more or less antithetical to the way I try to watch movies based on books. The book and the film are emphatically different texts; judging them against one another, as one inevitably does, tends to cheapen both without improving our reading of either. Watching after reading so quickly, though, brought a few things to the forefront. First, I am as firmly convinced as ever that Philip Roth is basically impossible to adapt to the screen for much the same reason no one has ever made a good movie out of The Great Gatsby. Too much of what happens in Roth’s novels is in someone’s torrid inner monologue, not in their actions, and the list of movies which do a good job of presenting “torrid inner monologue” within their own contexts is skimpy indeed. No one has ever managed to turn the tearfully beautiful language of Nick Carraway’s mind into something that can be spoken aloud, much less acted. I confess ignorance, too, to any idea of how one adapts Nathan Zuckerman to film. Second, I was surprised but not entirely disappointed by the sheer amount of dialogue from the novel Schamus brought into the movie. Short of a badly conceived peek into the Korean War which begins the movie (complete with a dumbed down voiceover which I’ll merely call “inelegant”) and some elision of Marcus’ father, the film is a seriously faithful adaptation of the novel. It does not make the movie better, necessarily (and as we’ll see later it doesn’t always help), but it’s an interesting choice. On the whole, James Schamus’ direction is competent but really safe—there’s a lot of “medium shot, close-up, closer close-up” like he’s scared to put down the manual. It is also part of a bizarre trend of first-time directors directing Roth material that they really haven’t worked up to yet. Third, and most importantly, Indignation the movie knows where Indignation the novel kept its thunder, and it did not fool with it.

Indignation the novel is a significantly less raunchy version of Portnoy’s Complaint, even down to little throwaway moments. The protagonists of both have an encyclopedic knowledge of the songs of the different military branches, for example, all the way down to the WACs and Seabees. Their fathers are both described as men of intense personalities, strong builds, tough minds, and totally unhinged as they age and begin to fear for their brilliant sons. Famously, in the case of Alexander Portnoy, sexual development is both befuddling and rapturous; both of them wind up with beautiful Gentile women way outside their experience and whose willingness to further said sexual development make them objects (yes) of scorn and desire. It’s their mothers who diverge. Alex’s mother is as complex as anyone in Portnoy’s Complaint, but in the end she is never allowed far off the chain from “Jewish mom joke,” which is of course much of the purpose of the novel. Marcus’ mother is far less interesting for far more time, but then Esther says a word like “divorce,” which may not even be a word that Sophie Portnoy knows. And then, Esther makes a deal with her son. I won’t divorce your father, she says, and you’ll give up Olivia Hutton.

This is the novel’s most powerful scene, and it is the film’s most powerful scene as well. Indignation the movie (which I promise to stick to from now on) is a little bloodless. It by and large simmers where other movies would boil, or where others still would make the mistake of boiling over. But the scene where mother and son have it out is everything I had hoped for, the best of Logan Lerman and Linda Emond alike. There are millions of young women out there who have never tried to kill themselves, Esther says. She will swallow you up with her weakness, her instability, and you will never become the man who we dreamed you would become, the lawyer and public figure, when we sent you to college. It doesn’t matter who she is as long as she has never tried to blot out her life. Whether or not one agrees with Esther is one’s own prerogative; heaven knows there are some elements of her speech which I find misguided. But the effect that she has on Marcus is palpable. He begins to weep a little bit, and the film lets us wonder what he’s weeping for. He may weep for the injustice of this situation, weep for the frankness with which his mother is speaking, weep for the pain she is in and for the practicality of her solution, weep for Olivia, weep even from fatigue. But he does, and she does not make much of a motion to comfort him. She lets him get it out. He promises to give up “Miss Hutton,” as she invariably refers to the young woman, and while he continues to try to make contact with her, he never does see her again. By the time he’s returned to Winesburg from the hospital where he had his appendix out, she has been removed from campus due to a nervous breakdown and a pregnancy that Marcus has played no part in.

Lerman is a pleasant surprise in Indignation, maybe a little one-note facially and vocally, but he is an adequate star for the movie; acting by himself is far more difficult than acting with someone else in front of him. His scenes with Emond and Letts are, predictably, the best of the movie. In two scenes where he bounces himself off of Letts’ Dean Caudwell, we can see Marcus’ flinty aspects in a way that he cannot bring out when he is by himself or with two similarly okay 20-something actors. Caudwell has thorns, but he is one of those men whose thorns only appear when he is contradicted. In the company of identically minded men, of which there must be many in early 1950s Ohio, it’s hard to imagine him as anything but amiable. In a protracted scene with Marcus, Caudwell proves himself to be a really expert needler. Marcus is an atheist and an admirer of recent Nobel Prize laureate Bertrand Russell, so much so that he has Russell’s work memorized; Caudwell is a Christian and a capitalist who sneers at what he views as Marcus’ pretensions. Indignation makes a point of pointing out the cool anti-Semitism of Winesburg (none of these people saw Gentleman’s Agreement when it came out, apparently), and no one is a better target than Caudwell. I see your father is a kosher butcher, he says to Marcus, who knows he did not write “kosher” on the application. The two go to semantic war over this one word, and Letts informs Caudwell with a polite nastiness. Would it be inaccurate to say he is a kosher butcher? he says. He manages to make Caudwell the world’s worst dad, and in a scene that could have easily gotten wordy and pedantic, he spills some acid in meaningful places to scorch the scenes he’s in.

If there’s a disappointment, it’s Sarah Gadon (or maybe more accurately, Logan Lerman with Sarah Gadon), and I don’t think it’s even her fault. She is everything that the role requires, but there’s not much there there, as the saying goes; mostly what the role requires is prettiness, a quality which Gadon has, and a little darkness, which Gadon can call upon but receives little support once she does. Schamus’ script, which, as previously noted, borrows liberally from Roth’s novel, still includes sentences like “I, who have eight thousand moods a minute, whose every emotion is a tornado, etc.” which virtually no one could make unfunny. (There are others, like “Practice tact,” which lack teeth when said in her meek voice; I dunno what the answer is there.) Lerman is not the actor who can provide energy for her to play off of, and so scenes with the two of them together struggle often as not. The only ones which really work well are physical, where neither one of them has badly contrived dialogue to fight through. Kissing works. Sexual foreplay works. Fancy patter doesn’t, for the most part, and scenes which are meant to stoke our horny heroes feel stilted.

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