Indignation, a first feature written and directed by the distinguished indie producer James Schamus (now in his 50s), begins and ends with an old woman gazing wistfully at floral wallpaper. She lives in an institution of some kind — assisted living, or a mental hospital, and the flower motifs clearly signify something to her, a past sadness or happiness or both. But the narrating voice that folds her story into the film's themes of sex, love and mortality belongs to Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey who has spent his summer chopping meat in his father's kosher butcher shop.
Yes, we are back in Philip Roth country, specifically the writer's 2008 novel of the same name, set in the early 1950s when smart high school seniors like Marcus went to college while their less gifted friends shipped off to war in Korea. Marcus is something of an alter ego for Roth and he enters a Midwestern liberal arts college intending to shed his past and his innocence. He succeeds in ways he doesn't expect, notably in the arms of a siren named Olivia, who obligingly relieves him of his virginity and his kosher diet, not necessarily in that order. The sex is far from romantic, but this is the '50s, when whatever was repressed often popped out sideways.
Olivia is one of those erotically adventurous and somewhat unhinged Gentile women who people Roth's novels. Critics have often dismissed such neurotic forbidden fruit as emanations from the mind of a misogynist, but this incarnation is sympathetically parsed by Sarah Gadon (a David Cronenberg favorite) as a blend of damaged goods and intelligent power who's ahead of her time on several fronts. That may be her problem and Marcus's, whose awakening plays first as saucy comedy, then gradually as an achy love story between two youngsters drawn to one another not only by the Otherness of class and cultural difference, but by the fact that they're both unruly square pegs in the tidy roundness of their time and place.
As producer and acquisitions chief of Focus Features, Schamus did much to elevate the quality of mainstream independent film with gems like Brokeback Mountain, Milk and Lost in Translation, which may be why he got himself fired in 2013. That gave him time to take the helm of a pet project originally intended for his collaborator Ang Lee. But Schamus has his work cut out with Roth, whose stories mostly unfold in inner life and densely cerebral dialogue that has defeated many a more experienced director. And though superficially Indignation spans a couple of currently popular genres, Roth doesn't really do coming of age as such (Goodbye, Columbus) or love stories as such (Portnoy's Complaint, and just about every other Roth novel with a woman in it).
Indignation is made with care and taste and as much loving attention to period detail as a small budget and a tight shooting schedule will allow. But the movie is a touch stately and methodical, and it doesn't get out of the house much. And though Schamus is a seasoned, respectful adapter of Roth's prose, it's just plain hard, if not impossible, to do full justice to the novelist's mercurial shifts between irony, knockabout farce, regret and outrage.
"You're so intense," Olivia tells Marcus. Only he isn't, he's Logan Lerman, who was delightful in the Percy Jackson movies and in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Here he mopes around, as if waiting to be told to cut up. More miscast than inept, the cherubic young actor is hardly an intuitive alter ego for Roth, and he's pretty much swallowed whole by Gadon, who's intense enough for the both of them, and by Ben Rosenfield as a roommate with barely concealed homoerotic designs upon Marcus. Lerman doesn't have, or doesn't yet command, the jagged edges necessary to embody the pugnacious atheism that locks Marcus into verbal jousts with the college's Dean of Men (playwright Tracy Letts), a stiff-necked functionary whose educational philosophy rests on a bed of moral, social and sexual hygiene. The two men's mutually uncomprehending sparring sessions drive the action from comedy into something much darker. Denied the autonomy he believes his manhood requires, a desperate Marcus cuts a deal with his beloved mother (a wan Linda Emond) that propels him into a decision that will alter his life, and others'.
Written when Roth was 75, Indignation is a young man's story filtered through the anger and despair of an aging author who has seen the bleak histories of love and war repeat too many times for an upbeat ending. Schamus keeps faith with the novel's existential surprise, but he leavens it with a redeeming love that diminishes Roth most audacious literary accomplishment — his knock-knock-knocking on heaven's door.