Indignation: James Schamus’ Distant, Old-Fashioned Adaptation of Philip Roth’s Novel

It’s never too late to become a film director?  Founder and former chair of Focus Features, James Schamus, in his late 50s, makes a passable (but not more) directorial debut with Indignation, Philip Roth’s 29th novel, based on the author’s college years during the Korean War.

Our Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Sharply uneven, Indignation is old-fashioned in its visual style, and too studied to generate strong emotional response to literary material that, in all fairness, doesn’t represent Roth’s best writing.

Schmaus may have felt personal affinity with the Jewish protagonist of the book and film, though I think that as the lead Logan Lerman, a blue-eyed photogenic actor, is miscast.

Lerman plays Marcus Messner, a rather stereotypical Jewish teenager—bright if insecure, stubborn if also too close to his parents (especially mother)—living in Newark, New Jersey.

To avoid enlisting in the Korea War and to escape the clutches of his domineering father (Danny Burstein), who’s kosher butcher, and overprotective, perpetually worried mother (Linda Emond), he enrolled in Ohio’s Winesburg College.

While there, he falls for a blond girl, who gives the virginal boy his first sexual experience through oral sex (first in his car).  Initially, not much solace is offered by his roommates and students who try to recruit him to the campus only Jewish fraternity.

Lerman looks young, which is proper, but he is too handsome and naïve to play effectively the part of a loner and outsider, who is too awkward in all of his interactions.  Lerman is also too sensitive to play a straight and intense boy who needs to stand up to his peers, when they mock Olivia Hutton as a slut.

Marcus doesn’t adjust well to sharing his dorm with a meathead (Philip Ettinger) and a closeted gay drama major (Ben Rosenfield), both of whom play underdeveloped types.

More importantly, as an atheist, he is forced to attend chapel ten times a year, which he resents.  It’s a practice whose violation serves as a crucial plot point later on.

The film’s major sequence is a powerful interaction between Marcus and the stern authority figure, Dean Caudwell (playwright Tracy Letts), which occupies a whole reel.  While raising some interesting intellectual and philosophical concerns, it almost brings the film to a holt due to its excessive theatrical nature, length, and the way it is shot and acted.

It takes a while for Marcus, a former high school debate captain, to express his equally strong views and stand for his own values, and I think that an actor like Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) would have done a better job in this verbal confrontation.

The film’s last reel, especially the quasi-romantic scenes between Marcus and Olivia, lack dramatic interest and emotional impact, perhaps due to the fact that there is no chemistry between the two actors.  

With few exceptions, most of the dialogue-driven tale takes place indoors.

Rereading Roth’s novel after the screening made me realize even more that Schamus’s narrative approach and aesthetic strategy are not only too studied but also too distant.