Philip Roth novels don’t usually make themselves at home on screen, as anyone who slack-jawed their way through “The Human Stain” can attest.
“Indignation” is a bracing exception. It’s beautifully acted, and the tone is witty and grave. Writer-director James Schamus can’t solve all the limitations of the source material: The female protagonist, a WASP goddess tormenting the Jewish narrator, remains more person-adjacent than a real person. But the movie respects Roth’s coming-of-age reverie while gently questioning it, or at least tilting it sideways.
The year is 1951. Marcus Messner, the straight-A son of a Newark butcher and his wife, is leaving the nest. A scholarship whisks him off to college, where the student body comprises 1,500 students, roughly 5 percent of them Jewish.
In the library one night, Marcus spies a leg dangling over the side of a chair a few tables away. It belongs to Olivia Hutton, dazzlingly bright, curious and sexually several laps ahead of Marcus.
Their first date at a French restaurant is fraught with insecurity and promise. That promise is fulfilled, partially, an hour later, in the car Marcus borrows from his roommate, but virginal Marcus freaks out and avoids Olivia. Her own painful past comes out later. A confrontation with his roommates sends Marcus to an isolated dorm room and puts him on a collision course with the school’s puritan of a dean.
This is the key scene in “Indignation,” the scene between Marcus, played by Logan Lerman, and Dean Caudwell, played by Steppenwolf Theatre veteran Tracy Letts. It’s a 16-minute one-act play, on film, and nearly perfect. In a gorgeously finessed battle of wills and temperaments, Marcus defends his atheism (as well as his Judaism) against the dean’s slurs and insults. In Letts’ hands, this authority figure becomes a container for everything stultifying about mid-century America — an America battling evil from within and without, as one character puts it.
Lerman’s excellent as Marcus, capturing his principles and his bullheadedness. Sarah Gadon’s Olivia is no less fine. The character might be idealized, but from Roth’s perspective, Marcus is a tablet waiting for someone to write his story on, and she’s the shiksa to write it. As with so much of Roth, the archetypes bleed over into clichés and back again, and there’s a lot to argue with in “Indignation.”
With its heavy string orchestration, Jay Wadley’s musical score tries hard to make “Indignation” not just matter, but matter in a cosmically important way. Then again, at Marcus’ age, in the time Roth writes about and director Schamus re-creates so deftly, anything to do with sex and death automatically outranks the cosmos. There’s no mystery to why this movie works so much better than other Roth adaptations. All the self-important chauvinism makes dramatic sense when the characters are not quite boys and girls but not quite men and women. Like the music on the radios in 1951, something dangerous was about to happen. And American sexual mores belonged to an age about to die.
Rated R for sexual content and some language. 1:50. Kentucky.