When a movie bears a cumbersome title like “Indignation,” you shouldn’t expect a high-spirited romp. And this adaptation of the 2008 Philip Roth novel of the same name is indeed a burdensome viewing—a ploddingbildungsroman that only occasionally captures the lyrical sparks and soaring articulation of its source material. Mostly, it’s a reminder of why great novels should usually stay tethered to ink and binding and not storyboards and projectors. First-time director (but many times producer) James Schamus’ adaptation is suffused with the inherent difficulty of finding the visual correlatives for Roth’s poetic prose, of literalizing images best suited to our imaginations.
Shot modestly and without stars, “Indignation” tracks the coming of age of a Holden Caulfield for Korean War-era America: an nonbelieving Jew from Newark named Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), who leaves his angst-riddled, hovering parents to attend a small prep college in Ohio. “How will you keep kosher in Ohio?” asks a friend’s mother, mystified, in one of the film’s most amusing scenes.
There, he befriends and alienates his roommates, meets a ravishing young woman suffering from suicidal ideation (Sarah Gadon), and finds a verbal jousting partner in the college’s Dean of Men, a Christian doctrinaire named Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts).
“Indignation” is a period piece with a lot on its mind. It’s imbued with a cynicism toward the sacred institutions of prior generations, addressing such sweeping societal trends as divorce, promiscuity, atheism, communism and the nascent antiwar movement through the microcosm of Marcus and his limited circle of friends and family. But big ideas about changing times are just sociological window dressing unless every moment is authentic and exciting enough to justify them. And in favoring heavy-handed framing devices over messy naturalism, Schamus’ treatment feels arch, tidy and overly reverential toward the hallowed institutions of college. Only Marcus’ sensational tet-a-tets with Caudwell, with the calculated dean needling the young man with provocative questions and Marcus taking the bait with misplaced righteousness, live up to the promise of this venture. When Marcus finally drops an F-bomb at his superior, we celebrate, because a slip of passion has finally punctured the bubble.
“Indignation” opens today at Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton and Movies of Delray in Delray Beach.