Indignation, a film which opens with the most blunt of narrations, slowly uncoils to become another rushed and vague adaptation of a Philip Roth novel.
In the second set of the 1984 semi-final of the Stockholm Open, John McEnroe first serve was called out. McEnroe, absolutely convinced it was on the line, immediately started to lose his infamous temper. He asked the umpire, “No mistakes so far in this match, right?” When no response came McEnroe became even more incensed and shouted, “Answer my QUESTION,” in a way that would make Pierce Brosnan smile.
McEnroe’s indignation is blatant. He was sure his serve was on the line and he wholly believed his ludicrous reasoning was legitimate. So when it was ignored, his subsequent violent outburst, which involved verbal abuse, smashed glasses and tennis balls hurled in the direction of spectators, was comprehensible, albeit reprehensible.
During Indignation, James Schamus’s adaptation of the Philip Roth novel of the same name, one wishes everything was as crystal clear as in that tennis semi-final. It’s a film whose talented cast, delivering strong performances, is undermined by the odd pacing, unexplained character motivations and most disappointingly of all, a very rushed ending that robs the film of a satisfying denouement.
Set during the peak of the Korean War, Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, a nice Jewish boy who, much to the delight and relief of his family, is going to university at a time when if you’re not brainy enough for higher education, you’re more than brawny enough to fight for your country. There he meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a troubled girl who gives Marcus a blow-job in a car inside a cemetery on their first and only date.
Unable to process his sexual awakening, he begins to ignore Olivia – an internecine act, he soon discovers. After getting angry with his father’s (Danny Burstein) constant, suffocating phone calls; rejecting a Jewish fraternity; getting into a fight with his roommates, Marcus finally ends up in front of Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), the dean of Winesburg University.
Marcus’s dialogue with Caudewell is the film’s highlight. It’s a wonderfully paced and scripted verbal jousting match that gets funnier with every passing minute. No sentence from Caudwell goes unchallenged by Marcus. Where Caudwell confirms that Marcus’s father is a kosher butcher, Marcus, instantly on edge, says, No. No? Marcus distinctly remembers writing down just ‘butcher’.
When Caudwell asks where Marcus, an atheist, gets his moral guidance from, Marcus explodes and begins to extol the virtues of the arguments put forward by Bertrand Russell. The joy of this dialogue comes from watching Tracy Letts’ impassive dean sit back and absorb all of Marcus’s neurotic invective, like a verbal rope-a-dope, before rejecting each point in the subtlest, most polite of ways.
It’s a shame that this scene feels so at odds with the rest of the film. The indignant, incredibly aggressive Marcus sitting in front of Caudwell is not the same Marcus of the first 50 minutes and nor is he the same in the last 50 and it’s not clear why that is.
One is unfortunately reminded of the other recent Philip Roth adaptation, Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral, which desperately struggled to translate the novel’s incredible depth of character and density of plot.
After the first confrontation with Caudwell, and now with under an hour to go, Indignation stumbles into the same quagmire of being forced to choose between character exploration or plot progression.
At first it chooses the former, focusing on Marcus, exploring some of the incidents that made him the bundle of neuroses before us, but then suddenly it veers towards the latter and chews through plot points like a ravished dog. We see glimpses of juicy confrontations that could have been: another showdown between Marcus and Caudwell; Marcus reassessing his relationships with Olivia and his father, but that’s all they are – glimpses.
We are left to fill in too many blanks – a wholly unsatisfying experience, especially because Indignation has more than demonstrated its facility with funny and witty dialogue.
By the end, it feels like Indignation simply ran out of time, and we’re the ones left indignant by the film, shouting questions like McEnroe and waiting for answers that will never come. 2/5