I’m not sure I agree with the title.
I read Philip Roth’s novel Indignation a few years ago, and my only lingering memory is the main boy’s first sexual experience in a car. For Marcus, a college student in 1951 Ohio, that (well…) climactic moment starts his unraveling. Before this year away at college, he’d never left home, working in his father’s kosher butcher shop. Through Roth’s writing, we get a more interior view of Marcus and how totally repressed is, despite his increasingly rebellious nature.
On screen, in director/screenwriter James Schamus’s new adaptation, we don’t have the advantage of being inside Marcus’s head. From this distance, he can be amusingly naive; but his selfishness and insecurity are maximized, too. Olivia Hutton is the beautiful woman who does the pleasuring on their first date. Unlike Marcus, she’s not ashamed of this intimacy, nor is she afraid to call him out on his self-righteous behavior toward her. But Olivia is more object to Marcus than woman. He idealizes her, takes pleasure from her (without reciprocation, either!), and then is guilted into leaving her. Because the movie’s focus stays limited to Marcus, Olivia never becomes a real character to us, either.
Marcus doesn’t recognize his own hypocrisy in judging Olivia when he’s similarly looked down upon for being Jewish. And why? Because of his mother (a quietly firm Linda Emond), who tells Marcus she’ll divorce his father if he doesn’t leave Olivia? Because of his own internalized self-loathing, bolstered by his suffocatingly white, preppy, Christian college?
I’m not sure indignation really characterizes his relationship with Olivia. The title makes more sense in the context of a large philosophical confrontation between Marcus and the college dean (Tracy Letts, with a bellow and withering stare that will henceforth define “condescension”). The scene becomes a 15-minute tennis match of philosophies, with Logan Lerman (as Marcus) nicely holding his own against Letts’ lethal serve. The dean and Marcus spar over the mandatory chapel requirement, even for an atheist raised Jewish, over Marcus’s love life, and over his inability to assimilate and not stir the pot. The Lerman-Letts dynamic sustains the movie’s darkly funny, thought-provoking tone, even when it takes a few sudden turns at the end. Both Marcus and Olivia’s last scenes feel too weighty to fit the story we’ve just watched. Poor choices at age 20 lead to this?
But en route to this inescapable conclusion, there are many pleasures. For us as well as for Marcus.