Producer James Shamus’s Freshman Directing Effort ‘Indignation’ Takes Him Back to School

Written by Selma Thompson

Is there anyone in America today responsible for more great cinema than James Shamus? Between his work as an independent producer; his co-founding of the art film hothouse, Good Machine; and his long tenure at the helm of Focus Features, he has gifted us with Brokeback Mountain (and every other Ang Lee film); Todd Solodz’s Happiness; Edward Burns’s She’s The One; Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, and so many other essential movies from the past 20 plus years. After groundbreaking decades in the film industry, Shamus has now re-positioned himself behind the camera to direct his first feature, Indignation. This is exciting news, though this debut effort sometimes disappoints.

Based on one of Phillip Roth’s last novels, Indignation follows young Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman of Perks of Being a Wallflower) as he attempts to escape the insular, lower middle-class world of 1951 Newark, New Jersey.  A classic Roth character, Marcus is a first generation striver trying to distance himself from his over-protective father, the kosher butcher. Marcus wants to be an intellectual. Atheism is a new-found passion he’s finding hard to keep mum about. He yearns to lose his virginity. And he’s terrified he’ll be drafted to fight in Korea. His attempted solution to all these problems is to enroll in a college in rural Ohio, offering him both a student draft-deferral and many miles between Jersey and his new life. Roth signals early in the story that Marcus’s best-laid plans will only bring disaster; a tale of young lives cut short before adulthood barely begins. It is a story of outrage against the worst of conservative, 1950s America, of the horrors beneath the surface of W.A.S.P. perfection. And that downfall begins with Marcus’s attraction to a beautiful, blonde co-ed, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadan).

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Photo credit: Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy Roadside Attractions

Shamus has certainly picked challenging material for a first film, especially since this period piece was lensed in a mere 24 days for under $5 million. The breakout films of other young directors whom Shamus has championed were more modest, contemporary, stories with distinctive and personal points of view. Actors Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadan bring energy to their roles, but there is not much onscreen heat between these young lovers, largely because Shamus’s script gives them so little to play.

Instead we are offered waves of Roth’s prose delivered as voice-over, and a flash-forward opening that gives away too much, too soon. Static scenes in a sparse hospital room take up much of the movie’s run-time, as does a 16 minute “interrogation” Marcus suffers when a clueless, anti-Semitic dean (played with some panache by playwright-actor Tracy Letts) summons Marcus to his office. The visual possibilities of a Newark boy finding himself on a lushly green campus go largely unexplored, maybe because interiors are cheaper to film and easy to control. Perhaps this is also why more cinematic sequences from Roth’s novel, like a panty raid in which that 50s college prank is shown for its true sexist ugliness and entitlement, never make it to the screen. Instead, characters tell Marcus what to do and Marcus alternately agrees or disagrees.

Shamus’s previous screenplays have also been adaptations and collaborations, but they have been in the service of a director with a strong, singular vision, Ang Lee. It seems a given that James Shamus’s exhaustive resume will open the door for him to direct another film; when that happens, let’s hope Shamus the director pushes back more against his cautious screenwriter and frugal producer, even if one man wears all three hats.

Selma Thompson: A Lifetime Member of The Writers Guild of America, East, she has written scripts for television, cable and studios. Her work has won a Cine Golden Eagle and been nominated for a Prism Award. She is also a script consultant, and teaches screenwriting and script analysis at NYU, where she was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award. Educated at Princeton University and The University of London, she holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Tisch School of the Arts/NYU

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