Poor Phillip Roth. His track record as a well-regarded giant of the literary world, from both a commercial and critical standpoint, may be virtually unassailable but when it comes to film adaptations of his works, well, that’s a whole other subject unto itself. Since the late 1960s, filmmakers have tried time and again to adapt Roth’s essential works for the big screen with mixed and sometimes even disastrous results. Several examples that are ripe for discussion would be the ill-fated film versions of such celebrated novels as The Human Stain, Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. Need I say more?
So here we are in the year 2016 and before the calendar year is through we’ll have not one but two adaptations (American Pastoral is on the way later this year) to sink our teeth into with the current film, Indignation, being exhibit A. The question that begs to be answered is whether Indignation ends that long streak of failed Roth adaptations and, if pressed, I would have to say that the answer is no. Still, it’s one of the better attempts at bringing a Roth novel to the screen and is certainly worth a look even if it is a mixed bag.
The setting for the film is 1951, as the specter of the Korean War looms large in the background for all of the characters in the film. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is an academically gifted Jewish boy from a working class background who enrolls at a college in a small conservative town in Ohio in order to avoid the draft. While there he chances to fall for one of his classmates, Olivia (Sarah Gadon), who has battled mental instability in the past. Marcus overlooks this potential problem and dives into a love affair with gusto while also butting heads with the dean of the college (the celebrated playwright Tracey Letts, in a very good turn). The debate between Marcus and the dean over organized religion is one of the highlights of the film.
Part of the problem with the current Roth adaptation is that Indignation has the look and feel of a TV movie. Written and directed by James Schamus, former writing partner of award-winning filmmaker Ang Lee, who makes his directing debut here, the film contains great stretches of dialogue. Unfortunately the film also lacks a certain sense of stylishness that would separate it from television fare found on a pay cable channel. If one doesn’t go to the movies expecting to see something with a certain sense of definable style then perhaps this is the Phillip Roth film for which you have been waiting. The rest of us will have to hold out for awhile, I suppose.
Indignation is playing at a/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem.
Photo: Sarah Gadon & Logan Lerman in Indignation
Questions or comments? Write Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.