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. “Goodbye, Columbus,” way back in 1969, was a different, more wickedly satiric matter. But when battling an excess of sincerity, Roth’s carnal obsessions get boxed in, rather than opened up. In some adaptations (such as “Elegy,” with Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz) the story’s reduced to aging lions lusting after younger, damaged fawns, and the filmmakers have to work overtime to make the characters seem like people.
“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 an actual person. But the movie respects Roth’s coming-of-age reverie while ever so gently questioning it, or at least tilting it sideways.
The year is 1951, depicted by “Indignation” as an in-between state of drab decor and great worry. Marcus Messner, the exemplary straight-A son of a Newark butcher and his wife, is a young man leaving the nest. Friends and relatives are dying in Korea. A scholarship whisks Marcus off to fictional Winesburg College in Ohio, where the student body comprises about 1,500 students, roughly 5 percent of them Jewish.
In the college library one night, Marcus spies a leg dangling over the side of a chair a few tables from where he works behind the desk. This being Roth, that limb ruins Marcus for life. 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 relocates Marcus to an isolated dorm room of his own and puts him on a collision course with the school’s smiling Christian 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 very nearly perfect. In a gorgeously finessed battle of wills and temperaments, Marcus defends his atheism (as well as his Judaism) against the dean’s sidewinding slurs and insults. In Letts’ hands, and his stunningly precise diction, 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 as well as his bullheadedness. Sarah Gadon’s Olivia is no less fine. The character may 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 cliches, and back again, and there’s a lot to argue with in “Indignation.” The prolific author, who was 75 when the book came out, is looking back at a time in his life, through the guise of fiction, only a few years before Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” collection appeared on the scene in 1959. Schamus maintains a careful but never dull atmosphere of repressed energy throughout, and the period and Marcus’ crises come alive in a series of two- and three-person scenes, notably with Marcus’ parents (Linda Emond and Danny Burstein play the Newark couple, superbly), his roommates, and with Olivia, the golden girl with the scar on her wrist.
With its heavy-duty 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 first-time director Schamus re-creates so deftly, anything to do with sex and death automatically outranks the cosmos. There’s no mystery, really, 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.
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Melanie Blake Roth, Tracy Letts.
Director: James Schamus.
Running time: 1:50.
Rated: R, for sexual content and some language.