The first time Marcus Messner, played by Logan Lerman (Noah and Fury), notices Olivia Hutton, played by Sarah Gadon (Dracula Untold and Enemy), he’s staring at her leg. Yet, the first time Olivia notices Marcus she’s impressed with an intelligent comment he makes in their college class about hypocrisy, so she likes how smart he is. He simply likes how pretty she is. That’s not a good or equal way to start their courtship.
When Marcus and Olivia go out on a date, it ends with a car drive and oral sex. Olivia physically pleasures Marcus with her mouth. Later, she pleasures him with her hand. She continually pleasures him over and over, but at no point does Marcus ever offer to pleasure her back. Marcus never thinks to return the favor. It’s almost as if Olivia’s physical pleasure doesn’t matter. It was all about Marcus’ physical pleasure, the man’s physical pleasure. That, and the slight slut-shaming of Olivia, as well as all the other issues this movie dumps on this young woman, adds to the sexism, which is somewhat of an undercurrent.
Of course, the movie is set in 1951, so these things are expected, but this movie, adapted from the novel by Philip Roth, wants us to believe the characters are so smart. Its dialogue is straight out of something like Dawson’s Creek or Lion For Lambs where young people will have such intellectual discussions, complex, thoughtful and detailed, often though devoid of substance.
Yet, writer-director James Schamus concerns himself so much on these intellectual discussions, particularly two between Marcus and Dean Caudwell, played by Tracy Letts. Schamus concerns himself too much, such that he sacrifices some basics. One of the basics is convincing us of the love between Marcus and Olivia. He’d rather revel in intellectual debate, which would be fine if the debate had any stakes. There are no inherent stakes here, so when the debates continue for 10 or 15 minutes, they feel boring or annoying.
The movie tries to manufacture stakes for these debates, but it ends up being contrived and false. Letts gives a good performance, but Schamus never lets us inside the head of Dean Caudwell. He pushes so hard and we never really understand why. At first, I thought the film might go the way of School Ties (1992) with Brendan Fraser and become an exploration of religious intolerance, not against Jewish people but actually against atheists.
Unfortunately, it never becomes that. Atheism becomes a topic or a word that’s tossed out, but, because the movie keeps it confined to one room and between two people with no stakes, there’s no emotional weight. For example, Marcus was studying to be a lawyer, and he’s introduced to a Jewish fraternity. Why didn’t he organize a protest or prepare a lawsuit against the school for religious intolerance? The school was forcing he and other Jews to attend a Christian church.
For that matter, when Marcus becomes bothered by his time in the dean’s office, why doesn’t he just get up and leave? As those scenes in the dean’s office continue, that’s all I thought. I wanted to get up and leave. The filmmaker never provides enough reason to tether those characters to that room. I never got it.
There’s even a final decision, which further hurts this movie’s push that we’re supposed to believe Marcus is in love with Olivia. Marcus’ mother, played by Linda Emond, asks him to break-up with Olivia, based on things that are learned. The movie then cuts to the two being broken up. Besides a lingering look on Lerman’s face, there’s nothing more to it.
We get dragged out debates in the dean’s office with no stakes, but when something with actual stakes presents itself like the scene with Marcus’ mother, there’s no debate. There’s no back-and-forth. Schamus would rather waste our time over nothing than over something like Marcus’ relationship with a woman he claims to love.
One Star out of Five.
Rated R for sexual content and some language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 50 mins.
Now playing at the Cinema Art Theater in Lewes, DE.