Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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Philip Roth has written over 25 novels in the past 50 years, making him one of
America’s most eminent authors. With that prodigious output, he has inevitably been scouted by Hollywood for potential adaptations. However, perhaps because of their literary complexity, only a few of his novels have reached the screen, and none has proved a blockbuster. One of them, “Goodbye, Columbus” (1969), won decent reviews and box office, but others—such as “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “The Human Stain,” and “The Humbling”—barely made a ripple. That hasn’t stopped filmmakers from trying: the latest effort comes from writer/director James Schamus who has brought “Indignation,” a Roth novel from 2008, to the screen.

Much of Roth’s work springs from his biography, albeit with inevitable changes in
details and locations. “Indignation,” a coming-of-age story, is certainly triggered by Roth’s own background. The tale is told in one long flashback narrated in over voice by Marcus Messmer (Logan Lerman), who is an infantryman during the Korean War.

That voice shifts to 1951, where we observe Marcus as a precocious but inexperienced high school kid from New Jersey. He longs to pull away from his anxious, hovering, working-class family and is able to escape to a school in a new environment, in this case a private Christian college in Winesburg, Ohio. He quickly realizes his isolation among the few token Jews on campus. His youthful, but confident, atheism also clashes with a culture of chapel attendance and invocations of the Lord.

Two incidents roil his world: 1) his unexpected sexual initiation from a beautiful classmate Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a “troubled” girl with whom he is smitten, and 2) his confrontations with Dean Caudwell (Tracey Letts), who tests his patience and his personal ethics. The relationship with Olivia cannot withstand the opposition of Marcus’ mother (Linda Emond), who sees calamity in this fragile girl, and a ruse to avoid chapel produces a final confrontation with the dean that brings on his expulsion. The draft and the Korean War incident close the circuit.

Lerman (from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) does an admirable job of
portraying the bright but callow Marcus, a youth certain in mind but little touched by life who runs up against mysteries he cannot explain away. You can sympathize with the kid’s confusion before the puzzlements of a wider world but may bristle, too, when he plays the smart aleck. His confusion is most evident in his dealings with the ravishing Olivia—played as an unattainable porcelain doll by Gadon—and in his encounters with Dean Caudwell.

The exchanges between Marcus and Caudwell form the heart and moral center
of “Indignation.” What could have been a facile face-off between a tough kid against an authority figure is made more resonant because of the way Letts (a noted playwright as well as an actor) portrays the dean. Presented early as a stereotype of the proto-fascist headmaster, the dean’s character grows more complex when he interrogates young Messmer about his life, in school and out. Letts’ dean doesn’t pontificate so much as parry Marcus’s earnest objections, especially on chapel attendance. He does not automatically berate Marcus and recognizes that the child is bright with potential. Even when he finally has Marcus cold for cheating (paying a kid to attend his chapel meetings), the dean’s mood is close to understanding (if not forgiving) with never a raised voice. His is a serious protagonist to contend with, more than Marcus can handle.

Schamus is a film veteran, especially as a producer and a studio executive. He
has been associated with the director Ang Lee since their first collaboration in “The Wedding Party “ (1993), both as a producer and a writer. Here he debuts as a director and, while hardly flashy, he sets pieces in place effectively while staying close to the novel itself. He has taken on a hard nut of a story and achieved an unsentimental and serious tone, but one unlikely to be a Roth movie breakthrough. However, perhaps it will lead some moviegoers to take a dip in the rich Roth oeuvre.

(The film runs 110 mins. and is rated “R” for sexual situations).

(August 2016)

Photo Credit:
Tracy Letts (left) and Logan Lerman contend in “Indignation.” Photo credit: Alison Cohen Rosa.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

Producer-writer, all-around creator Norman Lear was an American media
phenomenon of rare influence throughout the 1970’s, a figure who dominated television by reimagining the standard situation comedy. Beginning with his landmark “All in the Family” (first aired in 1971), Lear built a TV legacy for CBS that has never been repeated. His career is traced in the rich new documentary “Norman Lear: Just another Version of You” which could prove a nostalgia trip, especially for folks born in the 1950’s
and 1960’s.

The documentary, co-directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, covers Lear’s
story chronologically, with archive material enlivened by studio interviews with the
venerable Lear himself, still twinkly and sharp at 93. The filming is linked in part to Lear’s long-term project of writing his memoirs.

Lear was a New Haven kid whose father went to jail when Norman was nine and
was raised by grandparents and relatives. He got into television in LA as a comedy writer for network variety shows in the 1950’s and, from network TV, he moved into writing and directing for the movies, writing light-hearted domestic comedies, even earning an Academy Award nomination for the script for “Divorce, American Style.”

By 1971, he signed with CBS and launched, improbably, the iconoclastic “All in
the Family” featuring the singular curmudgeon Archie Bunker. After an uncertain
opening, the show caught on, caught on so much that soon Lear is spinning off his “Family” characters (“Maude”) and inventing others (“The Jeffersons”) to ever-expanding audiences with tart dialogue and thematic material that regularly tested the network censors while displaying his own maxim of “human beings are just a little foolish.”

His success in those days of three major networks is unimaginable today: at one point Lear had six of the top ten rated shows on the air. One massively-anticipated episode of “Maude” (the abortion show) alone attracted 65 million viewers. His sojourn into black-themed comedy with “Good Times” was a hit but also caused black resentment from audiences and lead performers like Esther Rolle who felt much of the material grated on her as black “buffoonery.”

By the early 1980’s, Lear, a liberal Jew, observed the rise of politically minded TV
evangelists and deemed them dangerous to the republic. To counter them, he launched “People for the American Way,” an attempt to give voice to his basically liberal and patriotic views. His aim was not to buttress a particular political party but to challenge the dogmas of the religious right, views he saw as perfidious. In a highlight of his life as an activist, Lear purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured it across the U.S., including a stop at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.

As his commitment to his cause increased, his hold on TV comedy faded. The
last of his major series, “The Jeffersons,” left the air in 1985, and nothing he produced after that attained national resonance. Though his first marriage crumbled and he was diagnosed as manic-depressive, Lear, comfortably rich, with his causes, a new wife and loving daughters, now has the leisure to contemplate his life with a film to document it.

That life is presented fully and poignantly in “Norman Lear.” Maybe not a worldbeater life, but a culturally significant one and one well lived by his own lights.

(Unrated, the film runs 91 minutes.)
(July 2016)

Photo Credit:
Norman Lear in “Norman Lear: Just AnotherVersion of You.”  Photo courtesy of MusicBox Films.