Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci), the jaded creative-writing professor at the center of Richard Levine’s campus scandal drama “Submission,” is a character who’s familiar in almost every way, even when he — and the film — thinks he’s breaking the rules. For openers, he’s…a jaded creative-writing professor. (In the movies, is there any other kind?) He is also (of course) the author of a celebrated first novel on which his reputation rests, which means (of course) that he’s been struggling for years to produce a follow-up. His success has become the signpost of his failure.
Ted considers himself a man of high literary ideals, but that (of course) is why he’s a toxic cynic. From his tenured position at a Vermont liberal-arts college that he considers the dullest place on earth, he stands up in front of his seminars, bored to tears with the twee fiction his students have written (and with their mindless group analysis of it). At a boozy faculty dinner party, he launches into an obscene rant about the rise of the kind of “advanced” literary theory that would consign Edgar Allan Poe to the trash heap of history because he had a child bride.
The time is certainly right — in fact, it couldn’t be more overdue — for a drama that digs into the brave new world of college in the age of identity politics, micro-aggressions, and campus sex codes. (Yes, that world is no longer so new, but it would be hard to name one good movie that has captured it.) The fact that Ted, in his louche scarves and designer glasses, with his flourishy banter, is a character rooted in a hallowed academic literary ethos that’s fast disappearing is meant to be the essence of his fascination. Once he would have been the hippest prof on campus. Now he’s a middle-aged relic of the patriarchy, but a relic with soul.
Unfortunately, the way he expresses that is to allow himself to be drawn into an eroticized relationship with one of his students: the gifted, damaged, blonde-goth, cut-to-the-quick Addison Timlin (played by the vibrant Angela Argo), who has written an edgy confessional novel called “Eggs,” all about phone sex and the sexual abuse she suffered as a teenager at the hands of her stepfather. She thinks that Ted’s novel, “See You Next Time,” is the greatest book she has ever read; he agrees to read chapters of hers, and decides that it’s the work of a major artist. We have to take his word for it, since the excerpts we hear sound more or less like the same self-absorbed college fiction he’s been decrying.
Ted looks at his connection with Addison and sees an “idealistic” mentor/student bond. From the start, though, it’s a mutual-admiration society with porny undercurrents. “Submission” is based on the 2000 Francine Prose novel “Blue Angel” (which was loosely inspired by the 1930 Marlene Dietrich–Emil Jannings classic), and it’s all about how Ted allows himself to be played. But what the film doesn’t seem to realize is that even before he and Addison, in her dorm room, slip into their one and only sexual encounter (it lasts for about a minute), he’s been playing himself.
Levine, who wrote the script, knows how to stage an energized intellectual battle, but based on this movie, at least (I have not read the novel), adapting “The Blue Angel” to a 21st-century setting may be a distinctly musty and unrewarding idea. Addison (of course) is using her sexuality as bait, and the fact that Ted falls for it is his “tragic flaw.” But the way the film is staged, it’s still all her fault!
By making a none-too-convincing femme fatale the source of its drama, “Submission” comes off as an antiquated and rather reactionary campus parable. It walks right up to saying that if Addison were innocent in her motives, then Ted’s enmeshment with her might almost be justified, instead of the clueless transgression it is. The movie overlaps, in certain ways, with the #MeToo era, but mostly the recent upheavals in sexual politics make it look all the more dated. At heart, “Submission” views the prospect of a professor-student affair less with alarm than with a kind of unexamined nostalgia.
The role of Ted cuts right to Tucci’s hambone sweet spot as an actor, and that’s fine, since the most entertaining thing about “Submission” is Tucci’s theatrical haughtiness. Wearing a hairpiece that (for once) looks natural on him, he plays Ted as a frustrated star professor who always craves a duel, an argument, a way of standing up to crow about the bedrock values he thinks are disappearing from Western Civilization. For much of “Submission,” you wish you were watching a movie that allowed him to have that fight.