In his newest film “Submission,” writer and director Richard Levine’s tries to explore the topic of sexual harassment on college campuses, specifically between a self-destructing teacher and his seemingly aspirational student.
Based on the Francine Prose novel “Blue Angel,” the film comes at a time when the climate surrounding sexual harassment and assault is changing dramatically. Despite his good intentions, Levine’s uneven script lays some major pitfalls for the film, but is somewhat elevated by the stellar lead performances.
“Submission” focuses on Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci), an English professor and once-acclaimed author who struggles with writer’s block on his new novel and sits comfortably in his marriage with his wife Sherri (Kyra Sedgwick). When Ted’s aspirational student Angela Argo (Addison Timlin) goes to him for advice on her novel, Ted is drawn to her ambition, admiration and surprising talent. Eventually, lines are crossed and Ted becomes confused by the twisted web he has drawn himself into.
As with most book adaptations, Levine was eager to somehow include the source material’s stream-of-consciousness and implements this through bland narration, especially in the beginning. The narration is forced to combat with the always wonderful Tucci whose nuanced performance was already more than enough in selling Ted –– a character whose obsession with fame and originality detaches him from the high-brow life he feels forced into. Angela shares similar goals, and Timlin excellently portrays a surface-level innocence with layers of something darker beneath. Sedgwick shines in one scene in particular, but for most of the film she plays the unsuspecting and quote-unquote perfect wife that Ted is barely paying attention to.
When Levine is actually tackling the trope at his film’s center, a dissatisfied middle-aged man, that has already been delved into a lot in previous films, his narrative becomes spectacularly chilling, and it gets uncomfortable deciding whose side the viewer should be on. Yet there are plot elements that are introduced, barely developed and forgotten which muddle the film’s central action and weaken the emotional punches. At times, Levine almost inappropriately veers into comedy as if he forgot what the subject matter was at the heart of the film. Having some levity to diffuse the dark tone is smart, but occasionally the dialogue and music choices drastically change the tone so much, it is jarring to return to the weighty topic.
Levine’s poor execution of such a prominent subject-matter makes the film feel like a cheesy Lifetime Channel movie if it were not for the central performances. Although the film concludes on a underwhelming note, it does have a lingering effect that makes its viewers want to contemplate Ted and Angela’s relationship after it’s over. Perhaps this is Tucci’s impact, leading us to ruminate over how twisted certain character decisions really were. Ultimately “Submission” is an engaging and thought provoking film only when it wants to be, wasting its full potential on odd tonal shifts and miscellaneous plot threads.
“Submission” opened Friday, March 2 at Landmark 57 and will expand to additional theaters on Friday, March 9.
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