Movie Review: Indignation (2016)
He's driving the car, she's driving everything else.
“Indignation” is the most lyrical movie about a blowjob ever.
It’s an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel of the same name, but first-time director James Schamus, who wrote some of Ang Lee’s best films (“Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), left out most of the indignation. He softens the characters and makes them reasonable. Roth’s story is hysterical comedy while Schamus’ is lyric tragedy with a dry absurdist centerpiece.
In some ways, Schamus actually improves upon the book. For one, he makes us care about the characters. But without Roth’s indignation, the story doesn’t quite cohere.
This one goes out to Bertrand Russell
Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is the son of a Newark butcher who winds up attending the very goyishe, not to mention very English 101, Winesburg College in Ohio in the fall of 1951. In the novel, he goes because his father has become unreasonably concerned for his safety in the midst of the Korean War, and Marcus can’t deal. In the movie, he just goes. His father is a little meshuge, sure, but it’s long-distance meshuge. He’s hardly in the picture.
While taking on problematic roommates, weekly chapel, and invitations to the one Jewish fraternity on campus, Marcus must also deal with his libido. In the library, he spies a girl with her leg dangling over the arm of her chair, and he has to stay up until 2 a.m. to finish what he should’ve been studying when he was studying that leg. That's a good bit. It recalls another Roth scene—I forget which book—in which his Newark protagonist, also in a library, also enamored of a nearby girl, rewrites Shakespeare/Romeo: Rather than wishing to be the glove that touches the cheek, he wishes to be the bra that touches the breast.
The girl here is Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon, quite good), a lovely blonde in his American Studies class, whom Marcus takes to dinner one evening, then to the nearby cemetery to “park.” He’s driving the car but she’s driving everything else. He’s too nice to ask, too innocent to know. And it’s there, amid the quiet of the dead, that she does the deed that in a roundabout way leads to his death.
See, his roommates, one gay and in love with Marcus, the other straight and a doofus, mock him, and disparage her, and after a quick fight he moves into a room of his own: a third-floor garret that any college student would kill for, and which is treated here as if it were hardly worth the climb. The move also pricks the ears of uber-upright Dean Caudwell (playwright Tracy Letts), who summons Marcus to his office, where the two engage in a debate with raised hackles barely concealed beneath confusion (on Marcus’ side) and beneficent smiles (for the Dean).
Is Caudwell anti-Semitic? Is Marcus too sensitive? Whatever the reason, the debate goes on and on. At one point, Bertrand Russell is called upon, dismissed, defended. God and man are engaged. It’s semi-absurdist in its pointlessness, and it ends with Marcus, suffering acute appendicitis, vomiting over the Dean’s rug.
In the hospital, he’s visited by the no-longer estranged Olivia, who gives him a post-op hand or two beneath the sheets, and then by his mother, Esther (Tony nominee Linda Emond), who bears bad news: She wants a divorce from Marcus’ father. But she takes one look at Olivia, who has a scar on her left wrist from a previous suicide attempt, and whose father may be sexually abusing her, and cuts a deal: no divorce from the father (which Marcus doesn’t want) in exchange for no Olivia (whom Marcus does). Marcus accedes but is heartbroken. And it leads to his death.
How? Post-op, he can’t climb the stairs to his garret, so he stays at the Jewish fraternity, where its president, Sonny Cottler (Pico Alexander), tells him he doesn’t need to go to chapel: He can pay someone else to go for him. But the ruse is discovered, Marcus is kicked out of college, and, with no deferment, he’s sent to Korea, where he’s KIA. The end.
Causation is big in novel and movie, and it goes: blowjob —> roommate fight —> garret —> post-op Jewish frat —> scheme —> expulsion —> Korea.
So don’t get blowjobs. Sincerely, Philip Roth.
Look homeward, angel, and melt with Roth
In his novel, Roth lets us know fairly early that our first-person narrator is stuck in a limbo/purgatory he can’t comprehend:
... perhaps this perpetual remembering is merely the anteroom to oblivion. As a nonbeliever, I assumed that the afterlife was without a clock, a body, a brain, a soul, a god—without anything of any shape, form, or substance, decomposition absolute. I did not know that it was not only not without remembering but that remembering would be the everything.
But we eventually comprehend it. The first chapter, which lasts for 224 of the novel’s 233 pages, is called “On Morphine,” while the second-to-last chapter, “Out from Under” (just seven pages), informs us that Pvt. Messner, after having his intestines and genitals hacked to bits in Korea, is doped before dying. That’s the book. It’s death throes: a howl of protest against Jewish parents, sexual mores, and self-satisfied Christian puritanism that led, or is leading to, his death. It also feels like Roth’s own protest against his hugely successful career: the writing life, that scribbling limbo, that took over from the life as lived, and during which he’s forced, as Marcus says, to “remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component.” As Marcus recreates Winesburg, so Roth recreates Weequahic, Newark, on page after page, in book after book, down to its tiniest detail. No wonder he retired a few years back.
The final chapter, “Historical Note,” is just two pages long, and adds irony to what’s passed. We’re informed that, two decades later, in 1971, after a week-long protest, the chapel requirement at Winesburg was abolished. So what caused Marcus to die is ended by the next generation with hardly a whimper, and with, one assumes, much celebratory oral sex. Roth once wrote (again, I forget which book) that in the sexual revolution his generation was like the first wave at Normandy, over which the hippies of the ’60s stepped on their way to easy sexual bliss, and this is the literal version of that. Even into 2008, Roth is still indignant about it. Portnoy still has his complaint.
But that’s not for Schamus, who goes with his own, softer framing device. 1971 isn’t mentioned. Hacked genitals certainly aren’t mentioned. Instead, what begins and ends the film is an old woman at a nursing home being given her daily meds. Then she looks at the wallpaper in the home—little bouquets of roses in a quaint, 1950s pattern—and memories flood back into her. It’s Olivia, and the wallpaper makes her recall the flowers she brought to Marcus in the hospital; and she recalls that long-lost love.
Three things: 1) It's very sweet; 2) shouldn’t Olivia’s thoughts lead to Olivia’s story rather than Marcus’?; 3) for good or ill, it’s not exactly Rothian.