When it comes to novels, I’m more of a Philip K. Dick than Philip Roth kind of guy. I did like the movie version of Goodbye, Columbus (which came out the year I was born…so it was some years later that I saw it).
Indie screenwriter James Schamus, who has worked a lot with Ang Lee, tackles this 2008 Roth novel as his first film. He assembles a terrific cast, has great production values, and nice cinematography. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much of a story.
Logan Lerman, who was terrific in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is equally good here. He plays Marcus Messner, a kid who does well in school. He plays baseball, works at his father’s kosher butcher shop, and unlike the few cousins and teammate that died in the war — he’s off to college. One woman does ask, “How will you stay kosher in Ohio?”
The film could’ve benefited from a few more comedic moments like that. But we’re supposed to believe Marcus is so intense, perhaps there wasn’t room for humor. In fact, his new college girlfriend (Sarah Gadon) claims he’s intense. Instead, he just comes across as a bit jerky. My girlfriend and I both agreed that the main problem is the fact that we don’t care about either of them.
We do care about his mother Esther (Linda Emond, a stage actress, who is terrific here). She’s trying to deal with her husband Max (Danny Burstein), who seems to be losing his marbles as the overprotective father.
Marcus doesn’t get along well with his two Jewish roommates. One of them constantly recites Shakespeare (and is probably gay). The other is quiet, and doesn’t mind lending Marcus his car. That helps when it comes to him losing his virginity. Yet Marcus…seems to be upset at all these individuals. The only time we root for him in his anger, is when he’s called into the dean’s office. Played by playwright Tracy Letts, we get a 15 minute scene that’s incredible. They argue about his atheism, his inability to fit in, and a few other things. It’s perfectly executed in every way. The fact that they make the dean rather reasonable (considering who he is, and the fact that it’s 1951), makes it all the more compelling.
Another interesting touch is when a Jewish fraternity president (Pico Alexander) tries to get Marcus to join the frat. Even when he shows up later, it’s interesting. We’re used to seeing these types of characters, and we think he’s the good looking, perfect student and son, that’s really an Eddie Haskell; throwing keggers at his frat house when the adults aren’t around. Yet he’s actually a nice person, and offers up some good advice for Marcus. It’s a shame that I was wishing the movie was about him, or gave us a bit more of the dean…or even Marcus’ parents, who look like they’re heading for a divorce.
At times, the movie was a bit slow. It also suffered from the characters not having much of an arc.
The film isn’t nearly as poignant as it should be, but the ending was really powerful.
It gets 2 ½ stars out of 5.