Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 54 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 6; Sex 4/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.
Romans 12:2 (J.B. Phillips)
College freshman Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is already a staunch atheist, so the second part of the apostle Paul’s warning to the Christians at Rome would mean nothing. But, as we see in a delightfully written 15 minute scene with the Dean of his college that leads to the title of this film, the 2nd part definitely would resonate with him. Set during the Korean War era, this fine adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel by screenwriter/director James Schamus has an almost O. Henry ending, so pay close attention to the opening scenes, one involving a firefight between a North Korean and an American soldier, and the other an old woman gazing at the wall paper, the pattern of which consists of repeated small pictures of roses in a vase.
Marcus has worked in the kosher butcher shop of his father Max (Danny Burstein) in Newark, New Jersey. An independent-minded A student, he enrolls in a small college in the fictioal town of Winesboro Ohio. Max constantly badgers his son about straying from a strict moral path. “The tiniest mistake can have consequences,” he says. Even his longsuffering wife Esther (Linda Emond) is fed up with her husband’s almost paranoid rantings. Marcus sees his college attendance as the best means of avoiding his nagging father as well as the government’s draft, and thus avoiding the fate of a cousin who was killed in combat in Korea.
College proves to be no paradise, his two Jewish roommates intruding far too much into his privacy, and the lovely WASP Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) who attracts his eye being so forward on their first date that he decides not to call her again. (Though not willing to go “all the way” with him in his roommate’s borrowed car, she engages in fellatio on him out of the mistaken belief that all boys want this.) Marcus resists the attempt of two students who want him to join their Jewish fraternity as a means of protesting their exclusion from the Gentile organizations. He complains about the compulsory chapel attendance where he must endure sermons about and prayers to a God he does not believe in. And he speaks out and argues in some of his classes.
When he moves into a single room in an less desirable dorm to get away from his roommates, Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) pounces, calling the boy in for what he thinks is a heart-to-heart conference that will straighten the lad out. Vainly attempting to create a closeness, the Dean, praises his grade record at first. During the first half of their meeting he keeps telling Marcus to stop addressing him as “Sir,” that he prefers to be called “Dean.” Dean Caudwell wants him to fit in, explaining that he should be able to work out his differences with his roommates. He even points to Marcus being an only child as a sign that he has socializing problems. Frankly confessing his uneasiness, Marcus argues against compulsory chapel attendance because he is an atheist. The Dean seems to shift into conversion mode as Marcus, pointing to Bertrand Russell’s essay “Why I Am Not a Christian,” argues that one can be a good person without believing in God. The Dean is so upset by now that he attacks the several-times-married Russell as being an adulterer. Despite the English philosopher’s having won a Nobel Prize, Caudwell denounces him as an immoral man. It is an understatement to say that th session ends badly—Marcus throws up. Suddenly he is in the hospital, the victim of a sudden attack of appendicitis.
Marcus does resume his relationship with Olivia, after which he learns of her past attempt at suicide. Soon he will come up against a gentler tyranny than the Dean’s, but one far more effective because it is imposed by his mother. She seems to have maneuvered her son into a vise, demanding that he promise her that he will break off with the girl, or–.
The film beautifully picks up on the look and feel of the Fifties, a time of strict morals when Christians presumed that they rightly ruled society—and that all others must knuckle under, or else. Whereas some Christians might be sending out those “Remember When?” memes celebrating the virues of the “Good Old Days,” this film shows the tyranny that cultural Christianity, rather than the genuine article, once imposed upon those deemed different, and thus threatening. Although those in that fear-filled era no longer sent dissidents to prison or the stake (unless they were Communists), those who stood up against them often paid a high price. When you become aware of the connection of the opening scenes with the concluding ones, you will see that Marcus certainly does! As a rebellious Jew, he was bound to suffer at a small college that sought to force its brand of faith upon its students. The sophisticated Dean Caudwell would blanch at the thought of wearing a white hood and sheet, and yet his unacknowledged anti-Semitism is akin to a Klansman’s.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.
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