In his feature directorial debut, James Schamus also wrote the screenplay based on the Philip Roth 2008 novel of the same name. Having read the novel after viewing the film, I was astounded at just how little Schamus changed when adapting the novel to the screen. Substantial portions of the dialogue appear almost verbatim, and even the plot–except for a few minor changes–pretty much reads the same.
The setting is at the fictional Winesburg College in Ohio during the early days of the Korean War. Logan Lerman is believable as Marcus Messner, the only child of a Kosher butcher Max (Danny Burstein) who worries incessantly about his son, who is away from home for the first time. The father’s worrying foreshadows the son’s tragic fate, revealed at film’s end as almost a random happenstance.
The film breaks into Act Two when Marcus meets Olivia Hutton, a blonde, non-Jewish co-ed who has a past history of psychiatric problems. Unfortunately Hutton is just there to move the plot along, solidifying Roth’s main theme of “bad things happen to good people,” and the inevitability of fate or Karmic resolutions in the universe.
The main plot involves Marcus’ conflict with Dean Cauldwell (Tracy Letts), an uptight martinet who calls Marcus to his office and dresses him down for not getting along with his roommates. He makes unreasonable demands on Marcus who defends himself adroitly, arguing that his private life has nothing to with his academic performance, which up until this point has been more than exemplary.
There’s a good bit of excellent Rothian dialogue here but the long monologues work better in the novel than in the film. Particularly of note is the debate over the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who is one of Marcus’ heroes. Cauldwell’s pejorative description of Russell is almost worth the price of admission: “four times married, a blatant adulterer, an advocate of free love, a self- confessed socialist dismissed from his university position for his antiwar campaigning during the First World War and imprisoned for that by the British authorities.”
Except for some good dialogue, Indignation features too many negative characters without many redeeming points. Marcus’ roommates all seem to have it in for him, especially Flusser, whose record-playing at loud volumes, drives Marcus to seek his own living quarters. Even Cottler, the popular head of a Jewish fraternity, sets Marcus up (however inadvertently) for his final fall from grace.
Despite his academic accomplishments, Marcus becomes his own worst enemy by refusing to attend double the amount of Chapel visits as punishment for utilising a stand-in to attend services that violate his treasured Atheistic beliefs. Again, it’s another severe character, in the form of Dean Cauldwell, who delivers the final coup de grace of expulsion from the college.
All this highlights Roth’s (and Schamus’) fatalistic theme which involves how for many of us, bucking fate is pretty much an impossibility. Against all odds (or so it seems), Marcus is caught violating University policy while others of lesser rank had previously, with great success, “bucked the system.” Other events appear to have led to Marcus’ doom including his involvement with the mentally ill Olivia (the innocent “hand job” she gives him while he’s convalescing in the hospital after a bout of appendicitis, leads to a rather bad reputation) and Dean Cauldwell’s unforgiving stance seals his fate.
Marcus’ fate indeed is book ended at the beginning and end of the picture. As it turns out, Max and Esther’s only child is condemned to die on the distant battlefields of Korea. Perhaps in real life, Marcus would not have had to oppose the straw men he’s pitted up against in this work of fiction and would have avoided such a deleterious fate, held up as both literary and filmic coup, by the film’s proud and undeserved scenarists.