Having written more than 30 books, including the Pulitzer Prize winner American Pastoral, it is somewhat surprising that there haven’t been more film adaptations of Philip Roth’s work. Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye Columbus, The Human Stain and more recently Barry Levinson’s The Humbling have been among the few to make it to the screen. But this year with American Pastoral (October 21) and this week’s release of Indignation, Roth is a hot commodity in cinemas. As I say in my video review above, in this case the return of a Roth property to the movies is welcome indeed because writer and debuting director James Schamus (the onetime executive running Focus Features) has done a sterling adaptation, while at the same time adding his own voice and point of view to Roth’s 2008 novel set on an Ohio college campus in 1951 as the U.S. was engaged in the second year of the Korean War.
Our protagonist is Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant young man who sets off on a scholarship to Winesberg College, escaping Newark, the draft and Korea — and also his overly concerned father (Danny Burstein) and mother (Linda Emond) who both work in the family butcher shop. Once at college, Marcus eschews hanging with his roommates — the only other two Jewish boys in the dorm — doesn’t want to join the one and only Jewish fraternity, clashes with the school’s Dean (Tracy Letts), and most significantly falls head over heels for the intriguing and mysterious Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who, to say the least, surprises him sexually on just their first date.
Marcus is a bit of a contrarian when it comes to the conservative nature and rituals of life on this campus, but his growing obsession with Olivia begins to permeate his whole outlook on things, worrying his parents and especially his mother, who travels there to make a deal with him in order to get him to drop Olivia. Ultimately though, the infatuation with her takes a turn when she disappears, sending him into a bad place.
Although this book, not one of Roth’s best-known works, is not autobiographical, you can definitely see the personal nature of it for Roth, who attended college at the same time — Marcus may even be sort of an alter ego for the author in some ways. Schamus has added his own influences to his screen version, with references to Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath among others. Where he really shines is making an independent movie not afraid to let his characters breathe. There are long, dialogue-driven scenes where the camera stays on the actors without the jittery need for unnecessary movement or giving a tip of the hand to audiences used to a quicker pace. In fact, a 15-minute scene in which Marcus confronts Dean Cauldwell in his office is simply brilliant acting — a tour de force for Letts, who in addition to being a Pulitzer-winning playwright (August: Osage County) and Tony-winning actor is an accomplished screen actor as well. Another riveting turn is by Emond, who nails her big scene to the point I am now predicting a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, in addition to a Supporting Actor one for Letts.
Schamus’ casting is exceptional and he has the pick of a great group of New York-based actors to work with including the excellent Burstein, currently on Broadway starring in Fiddler On The Roof. Ben Rosenfield and Philip Ettinger also have fine moments as Marcus’ roomies. But in the end this film belongs to Lerman, an exceptionally fine young actor in just about everything he does, and to Gadon who manages to make Olivia a complete and memorable original. The period settings perfectly capture time and place.
As for Schamus, whose previous screenplays have largely been collaborations with Ang Lee, he turns in an extremely accomplished directorial debut proving there is great life beyond the executive suites in Hollywood. He also co-wrote a song with the film’s promising new composer Jay Wadley called “Is It Love?” which sounds exactly like a tune you might have heard on the radio during that era — and that’s how Schamus uses it effectively in this intelligent film, a perfect piece of adult alternative programming for the long, hot summer.
Anthony Bregman and Rodrigo Teixeira produced. Summit and Roadside Attractions are releasing the film, which was first seen earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, beginning with a limited engagement Friday in Los Angeles and New York.
Do you plan to see Indignation? Let us know what you think.