Growing up is tough. It’s so haaaaaard to come of age. Now, imagine trying to come of age in the unenlightened and repressive decade of the 1950s. Whoo-boy! That ain’t easy, folks.
You’ve probably heard this all before. It’s been the subject of many movies and books and plays and probably even a few haikus. It’s also the subject of the directorial debut from James Schamus, the longtime producer and Ang Lee’s regular screenwriter. Adapted from Philip Roth’s personal novel, ‘Indignation’ is an earnest and even well-made movie that hopes to say big things in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Unfortunately, it feels far too familiar to register on all the levels the filmmaker strives for. There are some great moments buried within the overstated drama, but sadly they’re only flashes of the movie everyone involved seemed convinced they were making.
‘Percy Jackson’ star Logan Lerman plays Marcus, a troubled young man too smart for this world. After watching his friends helplessly shipped off to die in Korea one-by-one, Marcus accepts a university scholarship to avoid the draft. Unfortunately, he ends up in a particularly uptight Christian university in middle America, where he just can’t fit in. He hates his roommates, feuds over the phone with his parents, and can’t believe that he has to endure chapel service as part of his education. Then he meets a girl named Olivia (Sarah Gadon), whom he takes on a date only to be shocked when she proves to be the sexual aggressor. He’s confused, unsure of how to react yet fascinated by a young woman who somehow has a sexual appetite despite not having a penis (yeesh!). She’s also suicidal with scars of a past attempt, so she’s darkly damaged in a cartoonish way. Our angry young man sure is angry and confused about this wacky world. Too bad the crusty old college dean (Tracy Letts) takes a special interest in him. This guy just can’t handle authority!
Yeah, it’s that story again – a tale of a young man lashing out against institutions rooted in the past that just don’t understand him and his modern ways, while also feeling terrified and confused by the fact that girls also have feelings and brains and stuff. It might be possible to take this material seriously if executed with a light tough or dialogue and behavior that in some way resemble reality or human interaction. Not this movie, though. It’s told in big, broad strokes with every narrative, character and emotional beat underscored by some sort of dramatic camera trick or swelling musical cue.
The film is handsomely mounted. Schamus has been around for quite some time, and through collaborating with Ang Lee has learned plenty about how to use the tools of his trade. It’s a pretty movie that checks all of the boxes for an “important” picture. However, the line between self-importance and self-indulgence is thin and Schamus doesn’t yet have the directorial chops to walk that tightrope. More often than not, he serves up a cheese sandwich.
One big striking scene in the middle of the picture works so well that it almost justifies everything that came before and elevates everything that follows. Lerman and Letts share an intense, bold and oddly funny battle of wits in an almost 18-minute-long scene. It’s beautifully played between the two actors and explores all the themes of the movie with more nuance and humor than elsewhere. It’s a showstopper scene that seems to crystalize everything Schamus hoped to accomplish with his film. Unfortunately, it’s but a bright blip in another wise dreary exercise. As soon as the sequence climaxes, the life drains away from the proceedings once more. If anything, ‘Indignation’ feels even more disappointing by shining brightly for a moment to highlight every other shadow.
‘Indignation’ is a pretty disposable movie. That’s a shame, because Schamus’ reputation and past success earned him a team capable of mounting a production that is tremendously accomplished despite the empty void beneath the sumptuous imagery. The film is almost tacky in its self-importance and icky in its depiction of sexual politics, especially given that it attempts to turn that ugly subplot into some sort of statement. Though the project was clearly conceived and produced with the hope of delivering something meaningful and even special, the results are deeply forgettable. This thing will likely disappear into obscurity faster than it appeared. There’s a chance that one day Schamus might emerge as an intriguing director, but even if that happens, his debut will never be remembered as a calling card.