With the exception of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth is probably the major postwar American novelist least well served in the movies. In Bellow’s case, he’s hardly been served at all — a 1986 television adaptation of Seize the Day is just about it.
In Roth’s case, there have been several middling efforts, beginning with Goodbye, Columbus, which is considerably dated, and others, such as Portnoy’s Complaint, which are better not mentioned. The Human Stain, starring Anthony Hopkins as a professor hiding his African-American origins, had its moments, and The Humbling, which is much funnier than the novel, had a bravura comic performance from Al Pacino.
As is also true to an even greater extent with Bellow’s, Roth’s novels tend to be ruminative; much of the action takes place inside the characters’ heads. Indignation, the uneven debut directorial effort by James Schamus, who also wrote the screenplay, is based on a 2008 Roth novel that is more narrative driven than some of his others, making it potentially more adaptable for the screen. It actually has a plot.
Beginning in 1951, at a time when American boys were being drafted into the Korean War, the film is about Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), who works in his overbearing father’s kosher butcher shop in Newark, N.J. A scholarship to a college in small-town Ohio allows Marcus to escape both the draft and his father. (The college is called Winesburg, a nod to Sherwood Anderson’s linked, melancholy short story collection Winesburg, Ohio.) As one of only a handful of Jews in the college, Marcus finds himself both liberated and alienated. He declines to join the school’s Jewish fraternity and professes his atheism. A blond WASP co-ed, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), is attracted to Marcus’s defiant intensity and proves to be far more sexually experienced than he. Olivia’s attentions are flattering, befuddling, and, ultimately, disturbing. She is both ardent and unbalanced, and their up-and-down infatuation is the core of the film’s woe.
Lerman is a go-getter actor playing a go-getter character. His presence alone can make his scenes propulsive. Marcus’s scenes with Olivia click because Gadon knows how to insinuate her way into Lerman’s staccato rhythms. It’s an edgy yin-yang partnership. But the best scene in the movie is the extended confrontation between Marcus and the college’s righteous Dean Caudwell (a marvelous Tracy Letts), a smiling cobra who holds a grudging respect for Marcus’s insubordinations even as he aims to quell them. Marcus strongly disapproves of the college’s mandatory chapel attendance, and, in his meeting with Caudwell, attempts to defend atheism by citing the writings of Bertrand Russell. But Caudwell, no hayseed, knows Russell’s works. The back and forth in this jagged scene, which encompasses much more than religion, is like a Socratic dialogue retooled by David Mamet.
Schamus, who has a long partnership with Ang Lee as Lee’s screenwriter on many films and also headed, for a time, the estimable Focus Features, has a rather workmanlike approach to directing. For a movie featuring so much emotional discord, Indignation has an overly cautious tone: It could have been made in 1951. I realize that this effect is largely intentional, but that doesn’t altogether excuse it. Schamus wants the heat to arise from the story, not the stylistics. Good thing he cast his film so well.
Sausage Party **½
So it won't be mistaken for Pete's Dragon or The Secret Life of Pets. I laughed a lot in the first half, before the movie's repetitive jackhammer pacing, which isn't ideal for any kind of comedy, began working against its better instincts. Nonetheless, the script by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir has an inspired stupid idea, and boundless nerve, as well as a legitimate interest in theological debate. Truly, it does. I swear. Along with wiener-in-bun jokes and a lesbian taco shell voiced by Salma Hayek.
It's a quest picture, starring digitally animated consumables bearing nutrition facts labels. Co-writer Rogen voices Frank, stuck his whole life in a shrink-wrapped plastic package with other hot dogs. He longs for his ladyfriend, a bun named Brenda (Kristen Wiig, whose precise inflections of panic are invaluable in what is an aggressive guy-food movie). The grocery-wide species greet each new day with a song (music by Alan Menken, riffing on Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast) praising the gods and looking forward to whatever lies in the Great Beyond, reached when the customers wheel the lucky chosen few in a grocery cart of destiny toward … well, they aren't sure.
Then they learn the horrible truth. A bottle of honey mustard (Danny McBride, voice) gets returned to the store, and he's in a traumatized frenzy, babbling about how the gods (humans) out there slice and dice and peel and eat what they buy. The images we see are like splatter-film outtakes. Already in a cart of destiny, Frank and Brenda plot a fast escape, but the mustard kills himself by leaping over the side, causing a mess in the aisle and a bag of flour to burst, which visually references the dust clouds of 9/11, to give you an idea of the sensitivity level at work in Sausage Party. A lot of the sexual humor depends on rape or rape-y situations that leave an ashen aftertaste.
By the way, the hot dogs and condiments and fruits and vegetables can talk, and they have arms and legs, but they can't be heard by humans, unless the humans get extremely wasted shooting up bath salts. There's a scene explaining that. Sausage Party makes more sense watching it than it does reading somebody's narrative rehash. It's essentially Bennett Cerf's Treasury of Atrocious Puns mixed up with Zap Comix and filtered through the arrested-adolescent sensibilities of Rogen and Goldberg.
When Frank and company learn that their entire belief system is a lie, the movie pauses for a surprisingly earnest conversation between hot dog and bun about religion, philosophy and relationships. This is the End, another Rogen/Goldberg comedy featuring (like this one) the talents of Jonah Hill, James Franco, Michael Cera and others, was notably thoughtful about those questions too. That film, a Hollywood apocalypse bash, was far stranger and funnier. But Sausage Party finds a way to mend Arab/Israeli strife, at least in Shopwell's, suggesting that the bloody conflicts could be resolved by a bagel (Edward Norton, killing with a shameless Woody Allen impression) and a lavash flatbread (David Krumholtz — they couldn't find a comic actor of Arabic extraction?) working past their mutual mistrust.
The racial and ethnic stereotypes never stop, to the point that Rogen's Frank notes his own tendency to "make fun of our differences in immature and outdated ways." The pushier stuff in Sausage Party is less like This is the End and more like the forgettable stridency of the Rogen/Goldberg kill-the-North-Korean-leader movie, The Interview, the one that caused so much trouble for not much of a comic payoff. Others adore the new one. I'd say Sausage Party veers from relentless invention to plain old relentlessness and, when we're lucky, back again.
Other new releases this week
Counting *** There's a kind of helpless humility to the presentation of these urban impressions, almost a kind of democracy, that allows you to engage as much or as little as you like with them.
Morris From America *** While the film trundles along familiar tracks, director Chad Hartigan’s eye for detail and individuality yields enough dividends to keep it moving tartly and congenially along.
Tikkun *** It offers a striking contrast to other visions of modern Israel and Jewish identity. It may be the wildest vision of ultra Orthodox Judaism ever, but it’s not an empty provocation.
Phantom Boy **½ There’s an appealing quaintness to the storytelling that calls to mind the Tintin books of the artist and writer Hergé, especially that series’s old-world charm.
Viktoria ** The film is ultimately stultifying because the disconnection between the various characters is so immediately accepted as such a foregone conclusion that nothing ever seems to be at stake, and the heavily horizontal imagery, though accomplished and evocative, if fussy, only evokes two states of mind: loneliness and disconnection.
Lolo ** I appreciated the effort Julie Delpy, directing her sixth feature, puts forth in trying to spice up the genre. But that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.
Kickboxer: Vengeance * It relies less on in-camera stunts than editing that renders vague gibberish of the altercations.
No stars Abysmal