Roadside Attractions/ Summit Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Grade: B+
Director:  James Schamus
Written by: James Schamus, based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name
Cast: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Edmond, Danny Burstein
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 7/7/16
Opens: July 29, 2016

If nobody can surpass F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ability to conjure up the 1920s in America, ditto for Woody Allen for the 1930s, then can anyone capture the spirit of the early 1950s better than Philip Roth?  The great novelist (30 books) is now retired, but happily movies continue to be adapted from his works, such as “The Human Stain,” Goodbye Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.”  James Schamus comes along capturing Roth’s early fifties with “Indignation,” a movie from a book that does not deal with the surprising prosperity ushered in to our country years after the war.  Rather, “Indignation” focuses on the closed nature of America during the generally boring decade when college women had curfews, virgins of both sexes were abundant, and Hollywood was limited by codes such as requiring men and women who were in bed together to keep one leg on the floor.

Writer-director James Schamus is best known to us as for screenplays of such films as “The Ice Storm” (middle-class Connecticut families experiment with casual sex). This is his first full-length film in the director’s chair.

“Indignation” may not be considered greatly cinematic given the closed nature of the subject.  Most of the scenes take place indoors: in a college dorm, a lecture hall, a chapel service, a butcher shop, all of which could serve as well as a metaphor for a closed society.  Following Roth’s book, Schamus centers on a brilliant but naïve 19-year-old, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), from a working-class family in Newark, and could be considered a semi-autobiographical exposure of the author’s own life in New Jersey’s urban center.  Though he has a close relationship with his dad, Max (Danny Burstein), working side by side with him cutting up meat and chatting up the customers, he feels smothered, especially by his mother Esther (Linda Emond). Rather than continue with college in Newark, he takes advantage of a scholarship in sophomore year to the small Winesburg College in Ohio, encountering immediate problems with a theater-major roommate (Ben Rosenfield), who plays loud music and declaims from plays.  His request to change rooms (twice in the book, once in the film) leads to a conference with a concerned dean of men, Hawes D. Caudwell (Tracy Letts), who worries that this Jewish fellow is unable to negotiate compromises with others.  On the other hand, he succeeds beyond his wildest dreams when he is “serviced” by a first date with the disturbed Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a woman previously hospitalized for cutting her wrist.

In the movie’s key scene, Marcus spars for fifteen minutes with the dean, complaining about the graduation requirement to attend religious chapel forty times, maintaining that despite his Jewish upbringing he is an atheist, invoking the name of philosopher Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian.”  In fact the only thing that keeps him attending the college is his fear of being drafted to fight in the Korean War if he loses his student deferment.

Some comparisons could be made with the upcoming version of Woody Allen’s film “Café Society,” which deals with a Jewish family’s hopes for Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg).  Like Bobby, an awkward teen who rises from the mail room of a movie agent to become a man able to speak up for himself, Marcus, at first introverted, does a spanking job telling off the college dean of men with articulate and forceful sentences.  The trouble is that the two conferences could be considered a debater’s victory for Marcus, they put the young man on the road to an early ruin.

Schamus lucks out with Logan Lerman’s superb performance.  As one who attended college in the late fifties, I can attest that everything about the decade’s zeitgeist rings true.  Jackets and ties for the men, skirts for the women, regular attendance at lectures required, in short a subordination of young adults to the regulations of the little world within a world that is university life.  An audience of film lovers under the age of forty might scarcely believe the claustrophobia of the fifties, where smoking and beer were the only drugs of choice.  “Indignation” is a solid entry into the Roth adaptations, a fine directorial start for James Schamus.

Rated R.  110 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+


By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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