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Two Cranky Guys on “Indignation”

August 7, 2016


Bruce Fretts: I’m borderline illiterate, so I’ve never read any books by Philip Roth, but my friend Bret Watson is a learned individual and has read many of Roth’s novels, so I asked him to join me and review Indignation, based on his book of the same name.

Bret Watson: I’ve read 19 of his works, but not this one.

Bruce: I have a vague idea of what Roth represents. I know he’s Jewish and from Newark and my impression, based solely on New York Times book reviews I’ve read, is that he started out writing more humorous novels like Portnoy’s Complaint but grew more serious in his later years, and this is based on one of his later books.

Bret: I would say one regret I have is that as he got older, he got darker, and I miss the playful Philip Roth. There were very few humorous elements in this movie.

Bruce: I thought there were some darkly funny moments. This is the story of a young Jewish man from Newark, Marcus (Logan Lerman), whose father is a butcher, and he goes to college in Ohio to get away from his family. I assume it’s autobiographical.

Bret: Philip Roth went to University of Chicago, so in the Midwest…

Bruce: See, I knew you were an expert. So this kid meets a girl (Sarah Gadot)…

Bret: A shiksa! And what a shiksa. A blonde! In a tight sweater!

Bruce: And she’s so crazy, I’m surprised I haven’t dated her yet.

Bret: But you will. You talk about red flags. This woman has a scar on her wrist. That’s a red flag.

Bruce: Don’t be a nut-shamer, Bret. Her character is judged on the basis of her mental health history, especially by Marcus’ mom (Linda Emond), and it ultimately turns into a tragedy as a result.

Bret: It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bruce: So I really enjoyed the film.

Bret: You did? I’m shocked. I was bored.

Bruce: I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Tracy Letts, who’s a great writer as well as an actor, as the Dean. He’s such an intellectual bully that the scenes between him and Marcus play like horror films.

Bret: He is the best thing in the movie. And those scenes are the heart of the movie. They’re where the indignation is.

Bruce: Is it? I thought the title might refer to Marcus’ father (Danny Burstein), who becomes angry after his son leaves for college.

Bret: I thought the movie was too long and could’ve been tightened, and one of the things that could’ve been completely gone was everything about the father.

Bruce: I disagree. I thought the father was an interesting character, and Danny Burstein was perfectly cast, and you’re wrong.

Bret: It wouldn’t be the first time. Marcus is constantly getting indignant—not just with the Dean and his parents but also with his roommates. And this is a hallmark of Philip Roth. You expect characters to get angry with each other, have furiously intense dialogue, and you get that in spades here.

Bruce: The way you’re describing Philip Roth makes him sound a lot like Larry David.

Bret: I kept sitting there thinking, “I wish Larry David had handled this material.” My enthusiasm was curbed.

Bruce: That brings met to Woody Allen. We just saw Indignation at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, the unofficial capital of the Woody Allen fan club. They even serve lox and cream cheese sandwiches.

Bret: And Cafe Society was packing them in there, too.

Bruce: People say they miss Woody’s early, funny films. Is there a parallel to Philip Roth? Aside from them both being Jewish…

Bret: A wry way of looking at the world…

Bruce: Or a rye way? Because that’s what they serve the sandwiches on.

Bret: Yes, that’s completely what I meant.

Bruce: Sorry, I interrupted you.

Bret: I have to think carefully about what I say here.

Bruce: Why, because you don’t want to offend the Jews?

Bret: For starters. “That dumb goy knows nothing about my work!”

Bruce: Well, I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here…

Bret: Philip Roth pushes the envelope much more than Woody Allen ever dared to.

Bruce: Except with his stepdaughter. So you wouldn’t recommend this film?

Bret: I just thought it was weak tea. It wasn’t a full meal. There was great acting and some wonderful scenes, but my mind drifted. That’s why I knew how many Philip Roth books I’ve read. I was passing the time counting them in my head.

Bruce: I thought the performances were great. Sarah Gadot definitely captured that crazy-beautiful quality I find so alluring.

Bret: Philip Roth has written before about male main characters who get into relationships with crazy women.

Bruce: And do feminists find him offensive as a result?

Bret: Often, yes.

Bruce: And do they have any grounds for that?

Bret: Read the books, Bruce. On the advice of counsel, I choose not to answer that question. But Philip Roth may have dated a crazy woman…

Bruce: Really? What’s that like?

Bret: So that may be autobiographical, too, I don’t know. A great biography of Roth has yet to be written.

Bruce: Maybe you should do that.

Bret: Yeah, I have plenty of time. I’ll call him up now. “Phil, Baby…”

Bruce: I believe he had nothing to do with this project.

Bret: I don’t think he has to do with any of the movies based on his work.

Bruce: Some critics say there’s never been a good one, possibly until now.

Bret: It’s hard to capture him on film. So much of it is his philosophizing in describing the plight of his characters. He’s very trenchant. There’s not a lot of action in some of his books, or in this movie.

Bruce: I found this movie riveting, despite the lack of action. You, on the other hand, bolted out of the theater as soon as it was over.

Bret: I was trying to beat the crowd to the men’s room.

Bruce: It was a very old crowd. I knew there would be a lot of men with enlarged prostates who’d have to use the men’s room after the movie. You made a bee-line—or should I say pee-line?—for it.

Bret: They did not move quickly and had no respect for full bladders. That made me indignant. So maybe this movie worked after all.

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