In Submission, Stanley Tucci has this little chuckle he deploys in a variety of situations. He plays a creative-writing professor at a second-rank college, and his automatic laugh comes in handy when placating inquisitive students, attending faculty parties with pedantic colleagues, or shrugging off incessant questions about when he’s going to finish his new novel. I swear Tucci delivers it so that it expresses a dozen different meanings and feelings, all appropriate to the position in which he’s trapped at that moment. Acting is a precise craft but also a mysterious alchemy, and when you’ve gotten as good as Tucci has, a seamless performance like this can transform a so-so movie into a pleasure, merely for watching a veteran at the top of his game. The professor’s practiced chuckle also proves useful when navigating conversations with an attractive student who idolizes him, a case of sexual boundary-trampling that becomes the crux of the movie.
Tucci’s Ted Swenson has been teaching for 10 years, coincidentally the same amount of time since his promising, well-reviewed first novel came out. He wears his disappointment like one of his dozen or so ever-present scarves, the uniform of the hip academic. But there’s a bright spot this semester: Angela Argo (Addison Timlin), whose early chapters of a novel called Eggs show an unusual amount of sensitivity and talent. As she pushes herself closer to Ted, he resists … for a while. One of the most interesting things about the situation is that his infatuation with Angela is truly stirred by her writing—although the appeals to his ego don’t hurt either.
Submission sounds like it couldn’t be timelier, although it’s based on Francine Prose’s 2000 novel Blue Angel. That title is a reference to Josef von Sternberg’s classic 1929 film—the one that made Marlene Dietrich a star—about a professor destroyed by his passion for a heartless showgirl. What’s surprising in a 2018 film is that Ted, while just as answerable for his own downfall as any film-noir sap, is far more sympathetic than Angela. Even David Mamet’s hotly debated Oleanna, also about a student-teacher debacle, held its professor’s feet to the fire a little more sternly than Submission does. Maybe that’s because the subject here is not so much the hot-button slipperiness of sexual-harassment definitions, but the nature of creative writing, and how inspiration comes. Or fails to.
Kyra Sedgwick plays Ted’s wife, a role mostly consisting of waving around a half-filled wine glass in a stylish kitchen when Ted comes home from work. She nails a couple of gutsy moments, expressing amazement that the cliché of a teacher sleeping with his student has actually come to pass.
Director Richard Levine, best known for TV work on Masters of Sex and Nip/Tuck, directs like, well, a TV veteran. But at least he gives Tucci room to cultivate a complete, lived-in character. This actor—a household name, never a star—does such a beautifully nuanced turn, he almost makes you forget that Submission already feels outdated.