Director/Screenwriter: James Schamus
By Marilyn Ferdinand
By most accounts, Philip Roth’s 29th novel, Indignation (2008), is one of his weaker efforts. Still in the mold of his slightly autobiographical musings starring his fictional stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, this tale gains inspiration from Roth’s move from an all-Jewish section of Newark, N.J., to the small town of Lewisburg, Pa., to get his undergraduate education at Bucknell University in the early 1950s. Indignation shares other Roth obsessions, including fraught family relationships and sex.
Veteran film producer and cofounder and former Focus Films CEO James Schamus may have been attracted to Indignation for his directorial debut because of his own background. Schamus has a PhD in English and teaches at Columbia University in New York. Adapting one of the great American novelists of our time and cribbing from his own knowledge of academia, Schamus has lent a precise and knowing touch to Roth’s world while doing what many a successful producer has done—taken a minor book and turned it into a decent film.
The film opens with several American soldiers hiding in a building as the sounds of war surround them. They run when some Asian soldiers bearing bayoneted rifles enter their hideout to kill or be killed. A voiceover muses about tracing one’s steps through the many decisions, both large and small, that bring one to a critical moment in time. The scene shifts to Newark and centers on the Messners—Marcus (Logan Lerman), his father Max (Danny Burstein), and his mother Esther (Linda Emond).
The film spends a goodly amount of time showing the Jewish enclave where only-child Marcus lives. Marcus works hard at his father’s butcher shop, waiting on customers and patiently holding a pair of chickens by their feet for a middle-age woman to inspect. He relishes the chicken liver and onion dinner his mother serves. He also attends the funeral of a neighborhood boy who was killed in Korea. This event unnerves his father, who lost family during World War II, perhaps in the Holocaust—we’re never told for sure. Mr. Messner starts to hover over Marcus, looking all over town for him when he goes to the movies with his friends. Fortunately, Marcus’ stellar academic record secures him a place at Ohio-based Winesburg College and with it, a deferment from the draft and an escape from the increasingly bizarre behavior of his father.
One of Messner’s customers wonders, horrified, how Marcus will keep kosher in a place like Ohio. The obvious answer is that he won’t. Here Roth seems to air his disaffection with some members of the Jewish community who condemned him as an anti-Semite following the publication of his early short story “Defender of the Faith.” Marcus is an avowed atheist who apparently sees no contradiction in taking scholarship money from his synagogue. He also shuns an invitation to rush the only Jewish fraternity on campus, though the college has bunched him with two Jewish roommates.
His most typical, upwardly mobile, Rothian move is to pursue a prototypical blonde shiksa named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a Mt. Holyoke transfer and daughter of a prominent physician, whose bare leg draped over a chair in the library distracts Marcus so much that he must stay up until 3 a.m. doing the work he ignored while staring at it. As Roth wrote in Portnoy’s Complaint, “My contempt for what they believe in is more than neutralized by my adoration of the way they look, the way they move and laugh and speak.” His contempt and, ironically, his Jewishness will have severe consequences.
This film has every cliché in the book about Jews, but once Marcus hits Ohio, Schamus has Lerman underplay Marcus’ ethnicity. He attends the required chapel sessions with his roommates Flusser (Ben Rosenfield) and Ron (Philip Ettinger) without alarm and even eats the very treife escargot on his first date with Olivia. Following dinner, Olivia guides Marcus to a secluded location to give him a blow job. For traditional Jewish boys, having premarital sex is the equivalent of getting engaged, so Marcus’ confused amazement about this turn of events is more understandable in that context, not as the strange intellectual exercise he shares with a thoroughly disgusted Ron. That Marcus takes a swing at Ron for calling Olivia a slut and requests a new dorm room does not erase his muzzled reaction to her.
Another cliché that pops its head out, but to greater effect, is Marcus’ intellectual prowess. In a brilliant scene, Marcus takes on Mr. Caudwell (Tracy Letts), dean of men, who has called Marcus to his office to discuss why he is switching dorm rooms. The seeming concern of the dean fools Marcus not in the least, as he accurately assesses the interview as a veiled inquisition to discover if Marcus is a chronic malcontent and subversive. Marcus’ propensity for rabbinic argument extends to minutiae when he burrows into Caudwell’s description of his father as a kosher butcher, saying that he never used the word “kosher” on his college application. He further objects to attending chapel, baiting Caudwell to refer to his Jewish heritage and then trumping him by declaring himself an atheist and adherent of philosopher Bertrand Russell, a socialist he defends to Caudwell as a Nobel laureate. This scene is a master class in sparring with words, of the intellectual discourse of polar opposites that has all but vanished from popular culture—and perhaps a paean to the life of the mind from Schamus at a particularly stupid time in history.
At the same time, it shows the powerful danger into which Marcus has placed himself. Keeping a low profile and going along to get along simply isn’t his style, and again, I can’t help but think that Roth wanted to show the world that Jews are courageous, even though Marcus has avoided military service like any good Jewish intellectual. In the end, it is not Caudwell who is the ultimate enemy, but rather sex. Of course. Just like Ralphie and his Red Ryder bb gun, Marcus was bound to shoot his eye out by having sex, and this point is made in a too-on-the-nose fashion by having Marcus dream about kissing Olivia while they are both wearing bloody aprons. Schamus maintains the secret of Marcus’ downfall in a genuinely shocking and sensitive way, however, allowing him to question whether he is a victim of random events or fate as he picks over his choices and actions with a fine-tooth comb.
There are some fine performances in Indignation, with Letts a particular standout and possible Oscar contender as exactly the kind of cagey, cruel martinet who oversees the petty squabbles academia is heir to, absolute conviction in his rightness as his guiding principle. Emond makes the most of her one big scene in which she pours out her frustration with her husband to Marcus and then makes him promise to break off with Olivia, not because she’s a gentile but because she’s emotionally damaged and will drag him down. I also liked Ben Rosenfield as Marcus’ gay roommate, filling his clichéd role as a theatre major with a crush on Marcus with genuine enthusiasm, and sadness when Marcus decides to move out.
Lerman does a nice job of playing an emotionally contained young man. He projects a real intensity at times, while maintaining a mild demeanor and fresh-faced openness during his early days at Winesburg. Gadon, however, remains a bit of a cipher. She doesn’t seem emotionally troubled, though it seems we were meant to think that her sexual aggression was a sign of disturbance; later clues, like a scar on her wrist, seem like throwaways. Reviews of the book suggest that Roth’s characterizations were weak and sketchy, a handicap Schamus doesn’t entirely overcome. Nonetheless, he directs his cast well and captures an authentic feeling for the time, aided by a richly evocative, occasionally mournful color palette by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and Amy Roth’s costumes, which the actors inhabit with perfect ease. This one’s well worth your time.