An accident of timing puts “Submission” into theaters just as the American sexual harassment reckoning hits peak outrage.
And for those looking for the bits and pieces that add up to “blowback,” it makes a convenient cinematic starting point. The harassment as a double-edged sword argument is trotted out and given a “Disclosure/Oleanna” spin, decades after the “trial by accusation” culture those earlier tales taught us to be on our guard about.
Stanley Tucci is our narrator and “hero,” a one-critical-hit-wonder novelist long-trapped in the velvet coffin of academia, a college professorship in Vermont. Ted wrote a revealing, inventive novel that took in his own phobias and demons growing up as the son of a martyred Vietnam War protester.
He’s still got a nagging publisher, still has a sliver of reputation among his fellow academics, still has a two story New England house that he shares with his doctor-wife (Kyra Sedgwick). But for all the comforts of routine, he’s wondering what happened to his future promise.
Early scenes have the playful Tucci letting us sense his inner eye-roll as student after student offers up variations of bestiality in their fiction writing workshop (no doubt inspired by “The Shape of Water”).
He gently takes their defense/descriptions of the work and tries to steer them to more grown-up ground.
“Always quote the student when possible,” he narrates. “It makes them feel you take them seriously.”
But the most outspoken young woman in class, the harshest critic of the others, has promise. Not that she’s willing to share it with her “inbred” classmates. She wants Professor Swenson to “read my novel.” Angela (Addison Timlin of “Fallen” and TV’s “StartUp”) has a complicated past, which Ted begins to suspect she’s made up.
A colleague (Janeane Garofalo) mentions how “obscene” the kid’s poetry is, and that the coed insisted a self-published bound volume of it be added to the school’s library. It’s poems in the guise of a phone sex operator. Ted’s curiosity, abetted by the sexual fantasies her writing inspires, gets the better of him.
As we’ve already seen a faculty dinner party devolve into a heated debate over the delicate, easily-offended “safe space” craving snowflakes that populate college campuses, far and wide, we know where this is going. Or we might.
Because “Eggs,” Angela’s novel-in-progress, is good. Good enough for a teacher with a publisher to steal? Even though it’s about a teenage girl lusting after her teacher?
Writer-director Richard Levine (“Nip/Tuck”), adapting a Francine Prose novel, lets the viewer see the honey trap long before it is sprung. In a culture where his peers are cautious enough to never meet with a student without leaving the office door open, where the female faculty is champing at the bit to believe any student who complains that something/someone made them feel “uncomfortable,” how is Ted not hearing the alarm bells we do?
Angela pushes beyond “Please read my pages” to “CALL me when you’ve read them” to “My computer’s broken. Could you drive me to Burlington to get a new one?” to “Could you help me set it up in my (dorm) room?”
And Ted is led, like a sheep to the man-eating slaughter. Here’s a hint. Take that pun of a title, “Submission,” seriously.
Timlin doesn’t make Angela vulnerable enough to cloud our or Ted’s judgment. Maybe “mid-list middle-aged” academics and writers are suckers to a pretty face with a yen for sexually explicit subjects. She’s got “femme fatale” written all over her before we and he notice she’s watching the film that made Marlene Dietrich infamous — “The Blue Angel.”
Tucci gives Ted a light charm, even as he’s playing what we, he and his wife must know is a cliche. From the tastefully hip glasses beneath the hairpiece (he’s playing 49 in this) to the Subaru he drives (in years past, professors in movies and real life always drove Saabs), he has to know this is what he’s become.
That self-awareness gives the story a passable twist, and Levine writes and shoots enough scenes in inventive ways to make this mildly-frustrating melodrama work. More or less.
It’s the players, Tucci, Timlin, Sedgwick and Peter Gallagher (as Ted’s amusingly blunt publisher) who hide, in varying degrees, their motives, agendas and schemes, who make it worth watching.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Stanley Tucci, Addison Timlin, Kyra Sedgewick, Janeane Garofalo, Peter Gallagher
Credits: Written and directed by Richard Levine, based on the Francine Prose novel . A Great Point Media release.
Running time: 1:46