Predictable and uncomfortable, Submission falls flat while attempting political commentary, raising above other similar “message” movies through the acting of Stanley Tucci
It is a law of filmmaking that Stanley Tucci has never and will never give a bad performance. From his supporting turns in comedies like The Devil Wears Prada and Easy A to the more serious work he does in films like The Lovely Bones or Spotlight and even in his own directing credits such as The Big Night, any movie with a Tucci performance makes it a step above most films. The actor has a charismatic charm to his craft, delivering work in every single movie that most actors seek just once.
Unfortunately, it is Tucci’s performance alone that makes Submission worth watching in the end. The actor delivers one of his infrequent lead performances, giving outstanding work in a film with a screenplay that treats its characters and its audience for fools. The actor plays Ted Swenson, a one-time novelist and current college professor who develops a complicated bond with a promising student, played by Addison Timlin. From there the film follows many of the usual trappings of a film about cheating husbands and teacher/student affairs, albeit one that attempts to comment on these trappings.
Talking about the biggest problems of Submission requires getting into some details of what happens in the film, but it is nothing that hasn’t been seen before. Considering the film is a story about a teacher-student relationship from the perspective of the older male professor, it should come as no surprise what goes wrong. The movie (narrated by Tucci’s Swenson) turns Timlin’s Angela into a villain, which already plays into every horror story told by those who hate the #MeToo movement.
Timlin is not to blame for any of the films problems, nor are other supporting actors such as Janeane Garofalo or Peter Gallagher. I would go so far as to say that Kyra Sedgwick’s role as Sherrie Swenson is perhaps her greatest performance to date. And naturally, Tucci succeeds at making the movie incredibly watchable in even its worst moments.
As written and directed by Richard Levine, the movie thinks it is far smarter than it really is, with the story twists it expects to shock instead playing as a story that I as a college student have seen play out too many times to be enjoyable. What would be more incredible would be a movie that actually looks at the failings of academia to address sexual assault. Instead, Submission makes its hero into the person who should be the villain. As it is now, Tucci does make his character occasionally despicable, but many of the reasons why feel like actor choices, not written ones. As adapted from Francine Prose’s 2000 novel Blue Angel (named after a 1930 film referenced repeatedly in Submission), something feels lost in translation. This movie might have played far differently in a time when sexual assault is being addressed as realistically as possible.
Submission is barely even competent as a movie trying to be “about something,” and a poorly written script causes even further harm. Only the work of a few fine actors makes the movie even watchable, with Tucci doing the heavy lifting the filmmakers were unable to do themselves.
In Theaters on March 2, 2018 in NYC
March 9, 2018 in LA and Additional Markets