Prolific novelist Philip Roth, a tough nut to crack on screen & rarely attempted, got the two pants/one jacket special last year. Ewan McGregor, miscast as lead & director, crashed & burned on a major novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL, while this relatively minor work, from vet producer James Schamus (hyphenating up as writer/director), got something of a dream critical reception. (Though not much coin.) Was it low expectations? Roth, drawing on his own early ‘50s experience as working-class Jersey Jew plopped into MidWest Liberal Arts college, puts his fish out of water/chip-on-his-shoulder student on a virgin atheist’s pilgrim’s progress of intellectual intercourse, comic & uncomfortable; Schamus gets stuck at uncomfortable. Or does he not see the comedy in the inferno? It leaves the more dramatic aspects, parental separation & a tricky (make that tricky-dickie) affair with the usual mentally unbalanced/high-maintenance gentile Goddess unmoored. Even when you can figure out the tone Schamus aims at, as in a tense discussion between troubled student & imperturbable College Dean Tracy Letts, the scenes all seem to play back-to-front. As the Roth figure, Logan Lerman is a nice kid when what's needed is whiny, funny, hopelessly horned up; his troubled lover (Sarah Gadon) one of those unbalanced fascinators (think Sylvia Plath or Zelda F.), paramours who have a hard time coming off the page. Great work from Letts, though, and from Linda Emond as an emotionally smart, worried mom. And what’s with the paired bathetic bookends? Is it Roth or Schamus? Either way, they ring false.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While hardly a complete success, Robert Benton’s THE HUMAN STAIN/’03 (with Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman & Ed Harris) shows honest engagement with Roth. Why has no one tried SABBATH’S THEATER?