I haven’t read Phillip Roth’s “Indignation,” but the most interesting and subtle part of James Schamus’ screenplay adaptation is the backstory hinted at in the shiksa heroine’s past. The characters of Marcus Messer, the brilliant college student; his over-protective Jewish father, his kvelling Jewish mother, the over-bearing mildly anti-semitic college Dean - are all stock caricatures who each gets at least one opportunity to break out of their defined molds. But the character of Olivia Hutton, the beautiful blonde co-ed who performs a first date sex act that wasn’t common in the early 50’s, is developed with snatches of dialogue that seem to have sailed over the heads of most reviewers.
We learn early on that she has spent some time in a sanitarium after slitting her wrist, an act she chalks up to her early alcohol abuse. The privileged daughter of divorced parents, she is asked to describe them to the besotted Marcus who can’t understand her performance of fellatio without even being asked. Searching for clues to what she’s about, he questions her about her surgeon father and she hurriedly and nervously slams the door on that subject. Subsequently, after Mrs. Messer meets her, she cautions Marcus about not getting involved with such a wounded soul, cleverly pointing out the power that weak people exert over others. She asks Marcus about Olivia’s family and warns him to look more deeply since any girl who has attempted suicide at a young age may have been profoundly hurt within the confines of the family itself. In addition to the contrast between the annoying yet loving Jewish father and the sophisticated but abusive Christian father, we have the Jewish mother who doesn’t respect boundaries but whose insight offers the unspoken but most plausible understanding of Olivia’s promiscuous sexual favors and recurring mental anguish.
Unfortunately, most of this movie feels dated and schematic and the title character trait quickly becomes less clever than sophomoric. Particularly jarring was the awkward plot device of how Marcus discovers what has happened to Oliva who has dropped out of school; no Dean would ever have divulged such personal and confidential material to another student. None of the actors was able to rise above the stereotypical outlines of their parts, a fact that makes you realize the world of difference between competence and charisma. Roth’s literary experiments with narrative voice and flashback are deftly incorporated into the beginning and ending of the film, leaving you with more to think about than a coming of age story during the Korean War. Roth fans will flock to see this; others can wait for it on Movies on Demand.
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