A Fine Sadness
2 & ½ popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
If you need a very literate affirmation that life can sometimes be brutal, sad, mocking, unfair and heartrending, then director/screenwriter James Schamus’s diligent adaptation of Philip Roth’s “Indignation” awaits you at the Bijou. You can’t help but be mesmerized by the searing, incisive realities Mr. Roth mines in his chronicle of a Jewish young man’s experiences, circa early 1950s, at a small college in Ohio. The messages, either blatant or frighteningly violent in their subtlety, are delivered with righteous indignation, suggesting a modern addendum to the Greek tragedies.
If you’re familiar with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s body of work, you’ll find the theme familiar. There’s a touch of “Goodbye Columbus,” a few building blocks from “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and some smatterings of the racial injustice he deliberated in “The Human Stain.” It’s unapologetically intense stuff, a muckraking that specializes in artistically dissecting man’s inhumanity to man. The divulgences are often horrible, almost too much to bear. But when it works, the ideas are delivered with a literary perception almost equal to the catastrophe depicted.
But if you dig deep, read between the bon mots and imbue the screenplay’s circumstances with the innate optimism exclusive to our species, you are likely to root for the protagonist’s chances of beating the fates. Gosh knows he probably deserves it. Logan Lerman’s Marcus Messner is an awfully nice kid. Smart, rather handsome and a good soul, he wants to be a lawyer. Raised in Newark, New Jersey, the son of a butcher, he chooses conservative Winesburg College both for its reputation and for the distance it will afford from a background he finds stultifying.
His dad, Max (Danny Burstein), who could compete for airspace with any of today’s helicopter parents, has of late evinced signs of becoming unhinged. To the chagrin of both Marcus and his mom, Esther (Linda Emond), Max’s outbursts about the dangers lurking at life’s every turn have become overbearing. Alas, Mom can’t escape, but the deferment from getting killed in Korea that college offers Marcus is also his brass ring of salvation. Of course, in good ironic form, he will inevitably wind up forced to defend the very culture he has attempted to flee.
Shortly after being unsurprised that he’s been placed in a room with two other Jewish students and solicited by the Jewish fraternity as if he were being rescued, in good Rothian form, quicker than you can say Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, he becomes enamored of a Gentile co-ed. She is the lovely, blonde and blue-eyed Olivia Hutton, credibly portrayed by Sarah Gadon. Naturally, there’s more to this daughter of well-to-do, divorced Ohio parents, than meets the eye. But for now, she has never met anyone like this deeply intense young man.
However, intelligent as Marcus is, he is naïve as concerns matters of the fairer sex. Thus, he is abashed and perplexed when, on their first date, he learns that this seemingly angelic presence doesn’t share his inexperience. This sets all sorts of conjecture in motion, unearthing prejudices, preconceptions and philosophical points of view on what is and what is not proper. But for better or worse, from this emotional quagmire a romance is born. Mixed with a fatalistic aura that follows the infatuation, it’s obvious this is, as my mom would portentously say, “a big love.”
The story is the sort of anguishing tribulation that comes to you in the middle of the night, the reverie you wake up from and sigh in the relief that it was just a nightmare. But truth is, unless you have led a charmed life, it’s more than likely you haven’t eluded that messy, once-upon-a-time love affair that has left its haunting mark on your soul. What would you have done differently, or was it indelibly intended, fated as your indoctrination into adulthood, your bite of the forbidden fruit?
Roth via Schamus puts the adage, better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, in question. Everything has a hook…a price to pay. His characters don’t idly banter, their words measured out with meaning and intent. When Marcus, a devout atheist, is called into Dean Caudwell’s office to explain why he has changed residences, his ensuing debate with Tracy Letts’s inflexible bigot wins the award for best repartee in a movie, 2016. There is little comedy relief, only the nervous laughs that derive from the realization of our vulnerability.
It’s a beautifully executed mass of anxieties that certainly isn’t for everyone. All the same, those with a literary bent will appreciate the filmmaker’s dedication. He translates to cinema not just the surface story, but the universal quandaries that doubtlessly prompted its writing. Handsomely filmed and impressively interpreting the era both for its historical and metaphoric values, “Indignation” manages its anger with a troubling but nonetheless intriguing eloquence.
“Indignation,” directed by James Schamus, is a Roadside Attractions release starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts. Running time: 110 minutes