Among his other abundant talents, Stanley Tucci gives great smirk.
His curling lip lends itself to a devious complacency that, for many years, stuffed the actor's resume with bad-guy roles in all shades of movie noir. Until, that is, casting directors woke up to his wily gift for deploying a smug imperviousness as cover, while signaling inner turbulence that's about to blow up. Who could forget that stomach-churning moment in The Devil Wears Prada when he, as the compulsively loyal lieutenant of Meryl Streep's Miranda, finds out — at a party — that he will not be her successor?
All of that makes Tucci a snug fit for Ted Swenson, a disgruntled writer-in-residence at a lower-tier liberal arts college in New England where he teaches creative writing to undergraduates with more motivation than talent. In the nimble new campus drama Submission, Ted's voiceover fills us in on a tawdry tale of crash-and-burn that gives the lie to his habitual air of above-the-fray amusement.
We meet Ted in reasonably good shape with one "moderately successful" novel under his belt and a marriage to the understanding Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) that has yet to run out of juice. Yet he's stalled on his second novel and suffering from a vague discontent he doesn't care to explore.
When a waifish student named Angela (Addison Timlin) butters him up with comparisons to Stendhal and asks him to look at her manuscript about a high-school student who enters into a steamy tryst with her teacher, the blocked writer is set up for a swift fall anyone could see coming, even if they hadn't read Francine Prose's wicked 2000 campus novel Blue Angel, from which Submission is adapted by director Richard Levine.
Oblivious to the red flags flapping in front of his nose, Ted is also blind and deaf to his own devices and desires. In this he's far from alone. Throw sex into a blender with power and ambition and you get a whole raft of unreliable narrators, and that includes not just Ted and Angela, but the entire English Department of this peaceful New England campus. Holding a fine line between black comedy and low-level terror, Levine deftly skewers, via the supercilious Ted, the petty rivalries and pretensions of academic politics. And what is Tucci doing as Ted falls victim to a fetching predator who's all flattery until she's all business? Calmly spinning the yarn for us while his face subtly strives to contain the mounting panic within. An astute observer of the frailties of others, Ted is a clueless interpreter of his own, until it's too late.
The slyly titled Submission may have been a while in the making, but its release is ridiculously timely and likely to usefully ruffle feathers among those who see no shades of gray in the furor over sexual politics on and off campus.
Ted may be a train awaiting wreckage, but Angela, played by Timlin with cunning ambiguity, is no saint. She's a conniving minx who knows precisely how to play victim while extracting maximum advantage from the cultural moment. She has a better grasp of the Zeitgeist — and the literary market — than Ted does, and the fact that she can also write puts a bracing kink in the plot that forbids us to set up camp on one side or the other. There are winners and losers here, but while Levine gifts Ted with a more open future than Prose does in her novel, Submission ends up, quite properly, as a tale without heroes. It's an age-old fable about the point where desire meets device, and invariably loses.