‘Submission,” a rather too-well-mannered adaptation of a Francine Prose novel, is the kind of movie that makes you think of other movies — not always to its own advantage.
Prose’s original 2000 novel was called “Blue Angel,” named after the 1930 Marlene Dietrich film in which she plays a nightclub singer whose seductive powers bring a middle-aged college professor to ruin. In “Submission,” the femme fatale is Angela Argo (Addison Timlin), not a sultry chanteuse but a gifted writing student who idolizes her college professor, Ted Swensen (Stanley Tucci), and then lures him into an ill-fated folie à deux of thwarted ambition, bourgeois angst and sexual self-deception.
With its table-turning when it comes to questions of coercion and abuse of power, “Submission” recalls David Mamet’s 1994 campus allegory “Oleanna,” substituting polite restraint for Mamet’s hysterically pitched polemics. The cosseted, creeping dissatisfaction of tenured life evokes the antic satire “Wonder Boys,” without that film’s lived-in sense of authenticity and wry acceptance.
Wearing a toupee and tortoiseshell glasses that make him look like Jon Hamm’s bookish brother, Tucci seems eager to tuck into “Submission’s” juicier comedic potential, but with the exception of a few scattered scenes, that promise is never realized. Timlin is terrific as a young woman of ambiguous motives, but filmmaker Richard Levine seems content to stay on the surface of #MeToo-era button-pushing for its own sake, rather than risk more complex layers or a ruthlessly biting tone. (This isn’t the first time viewers will be treated to hackneyed arguments about college students being “babied” by anti-harassment codes of conduct. It’s probably too much to ask that it be the last.)
Bolstered by good supporting performances from Kyra Sedgwick, Janeane Garofalo and Ritchie Coster, “Submission” is a handsome-looking film that aims to fulfill the most meek, well-behaved implications of its title. For a movie addressing themes singularly suited to this moment, it’s all the more disappointing when it whiffs those chances. Prudent when it could have incited, tame when it should be tough, “Submission” exhibits all the qualities of academia that drive the likes of Ted up the ivy-covered wall — ultimately leaving viewers feeling less provoked than soothed and underwhelmed.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains profanity, brief nudity and sexual situations. 97 minutes.