I rewrote my initial review so often that imdb stopped accepting the edits. But I never felt I adequately expressed my thoughts on "Submission." So:
Meet Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci), who saw himself as a writer and proved it with his bestselling (semi-autobiographical) debut. The next never came, so he's settled for Creative Writing tenure at some prestigious New England college. Witness his misery: a class of shallow hipsters who write about screwing dead animals and trash each other endlessly; a faculty of stuffy pseudo-intellectuals; a daughter he can't understand. Oh, his wife Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick), the school nurse, loves him for who he is. But she just doesn't get his plight.
Enter Angela Argo (Addison Timlin), the punkish student who never shows her work and hardly talks. One day she approaches Ted - whose book, you know, Saved Her Life - and asks for his opinion on her novel in progress. And what a novel, Ted thinks. Here is someone with true talent, something new to say. None of that screwing dead animals bullshit; here's the story of a young woman fantasizing about her science teacher - and acting on it! My God! Genius! Ted must nurture this work for Angela's sake, and before long, he must nurture the troubled Angela as well. Or so he thinks.
If you can't guess where this leads, you're the right audience for "Submission," a drama about a tricky teacher-student relationship, and maybe a satire - like the source novel, Francine Prose's "Blue Angel" - on the perils of sexual harassment on college campuses. That might have been funny back in 2000, when the novel debuted. But right now we're in the middle of a thing where it's no laughing matter.
That isn't the film's fault. It was filmed in 2015-16 and made the festival rounds early last year before finally getting a small release this March, arriving in a landscape no one, certainly not writer-director Richard Levine, could have anticipated. What does this timeliness do for "Submission"? Very little, really. Much as it wants to start a conversation on harassment, it's also aiming for "Disclosure" and any given student-teacher drama. Guess which works best?
Satire as a genre thrives on broad strokes, and "Submission" obliges (perhaps the book too, I can't say). Angela's novel is titled "Eggs," with obvious connotations, so eggs feature in several scenes. A faculty dinner becomes a discussion of how kids these days are snowflakes who won't hesitate to cry rape; cue a haughty rant by Ted. "Blue Angel" was based on a 1930 German film of the same name, so Ted watches it for the parallels with his own dilemma. Chekov's Tooth - you'll like that one. However, Levine also wants his serious, mature drama, and nearly everything else about the film - direction, cinematography, music - is quiet and restrained, causing a dissonance in which the attempts at irony falter. The plot is also rote; there may still be some fresh way to tell this story, but Levine doesn't find it, nor anything notable to say about sexual harassment.
If "Submission" has one definite virtue, it's the lead performances. Even as the film can't decide what it wants to be they anchor it, lending weight and complexity where it otherwise wouldn't exist. In fact, I'd go so far as to say they're the only reason to watch this.
Ever since his breakout role on "Miami Vice" thirty years ago, Stanley Tucci has been a strong, reliable actor in a broad range of work. His Ted, with a toupee that calls to mind Stephen Colbert and garish scarves, is a guy who can't stand how his life turned out (learned through sporadic, superfluous voiceover Tucci delivers with perfect disdain). An old-school rebel, he's desperate to see himself as above the establishment that long since assimilated him, filling his language with caustic sarcasm and perfunctory laughter that fool no one. Maybe it's not surprising to see him awed by Angela and her Eggs. He's hard to actually like - that cynicism is expressed as smug disdain for his peers and barely-checked contempt for his students, and poor decisions seem to become him. But Tucci shows us there's still some decency in this naive, aimless man.
Kyra Sedgwick has little to do besides play off Tucci, but in her one big scene - a fiery excoriation of Ted after he admits his sins in rather childish fashion - she's superb. Sherrie has tried to understand and support her husband's fickle nature only to have that thrown in her face, and she'll be damned if she doesn't air her grievances. If that's the best the film can give Sedgwick, she more than makes the most of it.
Before my thesis about the third lead I want to mention the supporting cast. Recognizable faces, like Janeane Garofalo as a fellow teacher and Peter Gallagher as Ted's crass agent, do well with small parts. Everyone else is fine, with one unfortunate exception: Jessica Hecht as the faculty's outspoken feminist with an axe to grind for Ted. It's a one-note, hectoring character, and I can't see what the point was.
I'd heard of but never seen Addison Timlin before this. Most of her projects had minimal releases, or sat on a shelf for years, but I wasn't exactly looking for someone who made no impression on me. Now I know better. I've since tried to watch more of her work, and she strikes me as a talented, fearless and dedicated actress who continually amazes with each project. However, said projects tend to vary widely in quality from low-key great, to divisive, to mediocre. (You probably know where "Submission" falls.) I've yet to see something that equals her skill. But she is never less than convincing in any role.
So who is Angela, anyway? When introduced she's insecure, putting down her work and almost begging Ted to read it - though from the moment she says "this isn't class," it's clear there's more going on. In the gaudy lighting of her smutty lit, she's the pure, vulnerable object of temptation. As Ted asks for more pages her timidity fades, bit by bit, remaining just innocent enough that Ted doesn't - or won't - realize what he's getting into. Yet in the end she remains enigmatic, enough things contradicted or left unsaid that I felt I hardly knew her.
That doesn't stop Timlin from making her alive. She plays early scenes with the right balance of earnestness, as Ted sees her, and something more suspect, as everyone else sees her. I distrusted Angela, but still wondered when she was saying what Ted wanted to hear and when she was being genuine. (Apparently the book is even more ambiguous in this regard.) When the temptress becomes real in a pivotal scene, Timlin sells it brilliantly. Even as Angela becomes demanding and more typically antagonistic, Timlin's conviction never wavers and she sells that too. Through her, I could almost understand this inscrutable, fiercely intelligent woman who knows what she wants and doesn't care how she gets it. It's a tremendous performance that, again, I wish enhanced rather than carried the film.
Ted and Angela's rapport forms the core of "Submission." What begins as a kinship between writers is paced and developed decently, despite some dangling plot points (like Ted claiming Angela's work as his own to placate his inquisitive colleagues). He eats up her flattery but also genuinely likes her work; crucially, his initial infatuation is intellectual rather than physical, and maybe hers is too. It's a subtle buildup that benefits the film greatly, until Angela loses patience - and the inevitable accusation comes.
The shift into a courtroom would be the climax of most dramas, a stage set for melodramatic reveals and stirring monologues. "Submission" is having none of that; in fact, Ted's downfall feels cursory rather than cathartic. (Now that I think on it, though, this may be the point.) Witness testimonies are a montage of talking heads, each lasting a second because the actual words don't matter. And though Ted admits his culpability - in the most arrogant way possible - Angela, with her well-played moment on the stand, is explicitly made the villain, triumphant and seemingly remorseless. I've read reviews claiming this insults #MeToo victims, or reinforces victimized men and predatory women stereotypes; I find these reactions extreme, but the film is muddled enough that I see where they're coming from.
And the ending! I won't spoil it, but Ted's story concludes in a place so absurdly tidy it could be read as bold or idiotic, depending on what you thought of the previous 100 minutes. I'd have called it the one unqualified success as a satire, if I knew that was the intention. And maybe that's my reaction to the film as a whole: it gets so tangled up in figuring itself out that I have no idea what to think.
So this is about as close as I'm going to get. "Submission" has weak bite as a satire and little of note to say on sexual harassment, but works as a drama because of the actors, especially Addison Timlin (whom I will try not to doubt again). There might be a truly provocative examination of that pertient topic here, or a darkly compelling character study; instead an awkward middle ground is what we got. My mild recommendation is for the cast; watch with that in mind and you might find it worthwhile.
A cynical college professor takes a keen interest in a talented young writing student.
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July 11, 2018 at 07:07 PM