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Indignation, written and directed by James Schamus and based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name, is a period drama with high production values that’s brought down primarily by a miscast Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) as its main character.
Marcus Messner (Lerman), a working-class Jewish student from New Jersey, goes to Winesburg college on a scholarship in 1951, avoiding the draft for the Korean War in the process. He develops strong feelings for a fellow student named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), but his lack of experience and social skills puts a strain on their relationship and his life at the college.
The main issue with Indignation is that Marcus is supposed to be a very uptight scholar with a strong stance against religion and Lerman simply doesn’t project the level of intensity that the role requires. He is a talented young actor, but his character consistently sticks out in a way that’s simply immersion breaking. I did not believe he was who the movie expected me to think he was.
A scene where he confronts dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) highlights the problems with his performance the most. At a moment where Marcus is supposed to be extremely anxious and upset, Lerman only ever comes across as slightly uncomfortable.
The fact that he is the main character and narrator of this story unfortunately drags the whole movie down.
James Schamus has a lot of experience with adapting novels to the big screen, and Indignation, his feature directorial debut, shows that. The production values capture the look and feel of the 50s perfectly and the movie is shot in a measured, calculated way that matches its tone and the pacing of the story.
The script can get pretty dense and wordy at times, which has the unfortunate effect of making you want to read Indignation more than watch it – that makes for compelling promotion of the novel, but hurts it as a viewing experience.
The movie is also fairly lacking in the wit one would expect from a Schamus script. There are traces of it here and there, but for the most part, Indignation is fairly humorless.
Another big problem with this movie is the ending, which simply feels hollow and unsatisfying. It’s supposed to be the culmination of Marcus succumbing to the pressure that’s been building up throughout the story, but since Lerman’s performance doesn’t successfully reflect that, the melancholy ending lacks the dramatic punch it should have.
On a more positive note, the rest of the performances across the board are quite good, with Linda Emond in particular making a lasting impression as Marcus’s mother in a small, but crucial supporting role.
All of Indignation’s problems can be traced back to Logan Lerman, whose character is too pivotal to not be able to deliver. It’s less an issue of talent and more to do with unfortunate casting – the role might have been a much better fit for the likes of Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, Zombieland), Miles Teller (Whiplash) or Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Amazing Spider-man 2), who have played similar characters in the past with great success.
As it stands, Indignation only really succeeds as a passable period drama that might interest you in picking up the book it’s based on.