With the exception of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth is probably the major postwar American novelist least well served in the movies. In Bellow’s case, he’s hardly been served at all – a 1986 television adaptation of “Seize the Day” is just about it.
In Roth’s case, there have been several middling efforts, beginning with “Goodbye, Columbus,” which is considerably dated, and others, such as “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which are better not mentioned. “The Human Stain,” starring Anthony Hopkins as a professor hiding his African-American origins, had its moments, and “The Humbling,” which is much funnier than the novel, had a bravura comic performance from Al Pacino.
As is also true to an even greater extent with Bellow’s, Roth’s novels tend to be ruminative; much of the action takes place inside the characters’ heads. “Indignation,” the uneven debut directorial effort by James Schamus, who also wrote the screenplay, is based on a 2008 Roth novel that is more narrative driven than some of his others, making it potentially more adaptable for the screen. It actually has a plot.
Beginning in 1951, at a time when American boys were being drafted into the Korean War, the film is about Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), who works in his overbearing father’s kosher butcher shop in Newark, N.J. A scholarship to a college in small-town Ohio allows Marcus to escape both the draft and his father. (The college is called Winesburg, a nod to Sherwood Anderson’s linked, melancholy short story collection “Winesburg, Ohio.”) As one of only a handful of Jews in the college, Marcus finds himself both liberated and alienated. He declines to join the school’s Jewish fraternity and professes his atheism. A blond WASP co-ed, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), is attracted to Marcus’s defiant intensity and proves to be far more sexually experienced than he. Olivia’s attentions are flattering, befuddling, and, ultimately, disturbing. She is both ardent and unbalanced, and their up-and-down infatuation is the core of the film’s woe.
Lerman is a go-getter actor playing a go-getter character. His presence alone can make his scenes propulsive. Marcus’s scenes with Olivia click because Gadon knows how to insinuate her way into Ler-man’s staccato rhythms. It’s an edgy yin-yang partnership. But the best scene in the movie is the extended confrontation between Marcus and the college’s righteous Dean Caudwell (a marvelous Tracy Letts), a smiling cobra who holds a grudging respect for Marcus’s insubordinations even as he aims to quell them. Marcus strongly disapproves of the college’s mandatory chapel attendance, and, in his meeting with Caudwell, attempts to defend atheism by citing the writings of Bertrand Russell. But Caudwell, no hayseed, knows Russell’s works. The back and forth in this jagged scene, which encompasses much more than religion, is like a Socratic dialogue retooled by David Mamet.
Schamus, who has a long partnership with Ang Lee as Lee’s screenwriter on many films and also headed, for a time, the estimable Focus Features, has a rather workmanlike approach to directing. For a movie featuring so much emotional discord, “Indignation” has an overly cautious tone: It could have been made in 1951. I realize that this effect is largely intentional, but that doesn’t altogether excuse it. Schamus wants the heat to arise from the story, not the stylistics. Good thing he cast his film so well. Grade: B (Rated R for sexual content and some language.)