September heralds a return to more serious films, and this one, based on Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, eases you back in (trailer). It’s the directorial debut of James Schamus, who also wrote the script, and he does a fine job keeping the story moving.
Young Marcus Messner is leaving his staunchly Jewish home in Newark, New Jersey, to attend the Winesburg (Ohio) College. “How will you keep kosher?” a friend’s mother asks, astonished. In 1951, going to college was one way to keep out of the Korean War. His mother is sad her only child is leaving home, but it’s his father who has the most trouble letting him go. He’s losing both a son and his chief assistant and daily companion at the butcher shop.
Marcus is a scholarship student at the conservative college and focuses on his studies and working in the library, when he meets and falls for the delectable and emotionally fragile Olivia Hutton, who introduces him to certain extracurricular activities. Her background and assumptions about life are so different from his, he doesn’t know what to make of her.
For various reasons, mostly mandatory chapel attendance, Marcus appears on a collision course with the dean of students. The dean gives him a grilling in what The Hollywood Reporter calls “a stunner of a centerpiece scene,” adding, “It is characteristic of a film that is simultaneously erudite and emotional, literary and alive, that so much talk could be so enthralling.” It’s uncomfortable, too, as they talk past each other and stake out irreconcilable positions. Marcus defends his views with stubborn spirit, but you know where the power lies and wish he understood the virtues of diplomacy. “You have to go around these people,” a fraternity brother tries to explain.
What makes the film so powerful are the three main actors—Logan Lerman as Marcus, Sarah Gadon as Olivia, and Tracy Letts as Dean Caudwell. Linda Emond and Dan Burstein play Marcus’s hovering parents.
The period details are nice, particularly the costumes and lighting. I saw the trailer for this movie several times, and the film unfolds somewhat differently than it suggests.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 81%; audiences 89%.