There’s a disillusionment with the world of writing that runs so deep through the veins of Submission it’s practically nihilistic. The older you get, the less inspiring and enticing the world when you’re stuck in a rut with no future. That’s a profound path, but the message becomes buried in stuffy academic babble and lost amid scandalous sexual affairs. It’s a story so muddled in its desire to break out and say something that it ultimately says nothing—at most, it mutters a slur before going back to stew in its egocentric drama.
Stanley Tucci plays Ted Swenson, an over-the-hill author turned dead-end college professor. He keeps saying he’ll write another book and come out of his decade-spanning lull, but part of him knows he won’t. He’s desperate for an escape from his creative-writing classes—where he contends with students who want to write about sex with animals and all manner of odd stories—so it’s a breath of fresh air when he comes across the writings of Angela (Addison Timlin), a student who has real promise. Or at least, for Ted she does. He becomes intensely infatuated with her story about a student and a teacher who have an erotic romance. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going, but Ted walks unwittingly into her trap.
Ted is a man so complicated it becomes hard to like him at times due to how he lets his bitterness swirl around his usually charming demeanor, lashing out in the most awkward of ways. His wife, Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick), notices him jump into a cursing spasm at a dinner party, half-jokingly proposing that special snowflake students should be locked in a room and shouted into maturity. He later explodes at Angela over how the success of a book deal means nothing in your later years. It means little to her, however, considering she has already wrapped her claws around Ted and seduced him into both giving her a passing grade and showing her latest novel to an agent. And by that point, there’s little reason for anyone to care for him as his career comes crumbling down.
There’s a frankness to the material that almost makes me appreciate Ted’s misadventures in adultery and writing. Perhaps the most brilliant scene is when he finally takes the unfortunate step of having sex with Angela: they kiss, they undress, but a chipped tooth breaks the mood and Ted is humiliated. Angela, nude, proudly thinks nothing of it and immediately moves on to print off the next chapters she wants Ted to read. She has already won, and the rest of the movie is watching Ted squirm while Angela’s true teeth come out to bite. That being said, the honesty that spews from both Ted and his wife as their marriage shatters is refreshingly savage without coming out of left field. And Ted’s school trial offers up a brutally defeatist admittance that feels almost invigorating in its portrayal of a flawed adult coming clean with his faults.
So many bits and pieces of this film work well regarding acting and dialogue that it’s a shame the film never finds its proper groove. What ultimately hinders it is that, despite the intense efforts of the cast, these characters carry the baggage of accompanying nastiness. When Ted falls, it’s his fault for failing to notice a slew of red flags and blindly walking into what he believes is a titillating prospect. Angela is so deceptive and dishonest in her campaign to be published that her cutthroat nature doesn’t make her as intriguing a villain as she could have been. I guess I liked Ted’s wife, but only for the scene in which she learns about the affair and becomes the only one to give Ted a vicious verbal punishment. But what does it say about a movie when the most likable character is present to point out a fault?
It’s extra frustrating that Submission comes decorated with an intelligent and mature approach to letting its human characters fall from grace within academia or lie their way up in the world. There’s a scene where Ted meets with his editor, who recommends the aged author pen a juicy memoir to get back in the spotlight. Ted scoffs, angered by such a suggestion, but maybe that’s precisely what this movie is missing. It could use a healthy dose of more eroticism to bring a little more vigor and a lot less stuffiness to a picture with adults that feel like they should be doing a little more than cordial pleasantries between hidden agendas. Submission certainly shakes the cage of desires, but only enough to make one want to kick it even more.