A film about a male teacher getting it on with his female student ought to touch a nerve in the era of #MeToo. But Submission – despite valiant performances from Stanley Tucci and Addison Timlin as the parties involved – lacks the spark it needs to spring to life.
Tucci plays Ted Swenson, a prof who teaches creative writing at a second-rate New England college and fills classrooms on the success fumes from his acclaimed first book, concerning his father’s fatal decision to light himself on fire to protest the war in Vietnam. Ted’s follow-up novel never materializes, whether it’s due to writers block or just personal inertia. His marriage to Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick), the campus nurse and mom to their daughter, seems solid. So Ted is definitely not looking for a fling when a star-struck student, Angela (Timlin), butters him up in class. Angela’s fellow students don’t see her talent; but Ted does, finding originality and fire in her writing. She’s not afraid of detailing her erotic fixations in prose. And in a reach for the obvious the film doesn’t need, her novel is about a student-teacher affair. If you can’t see where this is going, you’ve probably never seen a movie.
Based on Blue Angel, a novel by Francine Prose that was published 18 years ago, the script by director Richard Levine (Every Day) leans hard on allusions to the 1930 film of the same name in which a chanteuse, played with iconic erotic cruelty by Marlene Dietrich, demeans a college professor (Emil Jannings) by turning him into her clownish sex slave.
So there you have it. An older man who should know better finds his head turned by a young woman who flatters him into submission. Tucci is a wonderful actor, capable of suggesting a character’s churning internal life with a minimum of emoting. But even Tucci, wearing a rug and a hangdog expression, can’t lift Ted above the classic definition of an old fool, more susceptible to flattery than sexual attraction. Timlin is similarly restricted since the script is clear from the start about Angela’s agenda to use Ted for her own advancement in publishing. Only the excellent Sedgwick creates a relatable character, letting the wife’s raw feelings pour out in a restaurant when Sherrie learns of her husband’s deception. Great scene. The film needed more. Lots more.
Instead, Submission follows a predictable trajectory in which Angela sets a trap for Ted that will ruin his career and marriage, a fate he richly deserves. Without excusing Ted or Angela, the film doesn’t whip up much compassion for them either. To work, the performances need to explore gray areas, but Levine provides only basic black and white. We could use a solid movie right now to take on gender politics with literate precision and blunt provocation. Submission is definitely not it. Early in the film, Ted’s agent, played with phony flourish by Peter Gallagher, tells him: “Have you considered a memoir? You don’t need me to tell you that what’s selling these days has to have the juicy gleam, the bloody smell of the truth. ” The only smell here, and it’s rank is compromise.