“Submission” tells a tale of the dangers of temptation, and some viewers may have trouble avoiding the temptation to treat it as an op-ed rather than a work of imagination. Even though it’s based on the book “Blue Angel” by Francine Prose published 18 years ago, and draws inspiration from a film from 1930 (itself based on a 1905 novel), the timeliness of this movie, written and directed by Richard Levine, might strike you as downright unnerving.
A middle-aged writer teaching at a liberal-arts college has sex with a student and is engulfed in a scandal that wrecks his marriage and his career. Is he villain or victim? Another predatory monster or a martyr to cultural sensitivities run amok? Is the way his story is told evidence of an anti-feminist backlash or a bold indictment of witch-hunting excess?
The narrator is Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci), the success of whose first book earned him a teaching job, a temporary gig that has lasted more than a decade. His wife, Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick), works at the student health service. They have a grown daughter (Colby Minifie) who is not her father’s biggest fan. That status is claimed by Angela Argo (Addison Timlin), an undergraduate in Ted’s fiction workshop who asks him to take a look at a novel she is writing.
What happens next is tawdry, predictable, queasy-making and also frequently funny, though not for the Swensons. Tucci is the most unflappable of actors, which makes Ted’s inevitable and dramatic flapping all the more terrible and amusing to witness.
But “Submission” isn’t just his story. Angela is in many ways more interesting, even though, at the end, her motives are flattened in the interest of a narrative payoff. Ted is taken with her writing, and also with her naive, admiring eagerness for his approval. She writes about sex with older men in a way that seems calculated to trigger inappropriate fantasies. Ted is an easy mark.
Unfortunately, Levine, directing his second feature after working mainly in television (on “Masters of Sex” and “Nip/Tuck,” among other series), is a lesser artist than Prose. “Submission” feels more like an act of devotion, or perhaps of submission, than a free-standing adaptation. The satire is cautious and the emotions restrained, so that what should be a swirl of lust, ambition, recrimination and bureaucratic absurdity rises only to genteel, nervous laughter and mild discomfort.
“Submission,” with Stanley Tucci, Addison Timlin, Kyra Sedgwick, Janeane Garofalo, Ritchie Coster. Written and directed by Richard Levine, based on the book “Blue Angel” by Francine Prose. 106 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Varsity.