Jealousy is an organic trait among writers. An undeniable itch to compare your work to others. Without even trying, fellow scribes often eye each other’s work and wonder quietly to themselves, “why can’t I do that?”
In Richard Levine’s new film, Submission, we get to see what happens when that jealousy is mixed with an eroticism and a need to lash out. Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) is one of those writers who tasted the sweet spot once, but lost the treasure map, and can’t get back. A novelist with one hit book teaching young scholars in a cozy yet unfulfilling college gig, Swenson is growing restless with the new novel, which has been stalled for months.
Enter Angela Argo (Addison Timlin), a promising young writer in Swenson’s class who catches his attention when she vehemently defends a fellow writer, but has a motive. Apparently, she is a fan of the teacher’s work, and before we know it, is asking Swenson to read a piece of her brand-new novel.
Levine stages every scene like a playwright would, arranging his characters in simple situations and letting the dialogue carry the torch. It’s a simplistic form of directing that is actor-friendly and easy to appreciate. Every scene unfolds as if it was right in your living room. An intimate method that he used in his directorial debut, Every Day.
On the surface, Swenson has it all. A legacy, respect among his peers, a loving wife (Kyra Sedgwick), and the space to take it slow with the new project-but his cynicism and need to be great again hasn’t died at all. Angela comes into his life, lights the fire inside him, and sets off a chain of dangerous results that seems clear from about the 30-minute mark. I don’t have to spell it out for you, but let’s just say Swenson gets way more than he bargained for. Nothing is ever as it seems at first glance with writers, teachers, students, and opportunity.
Levine’s script struggles with familiarity and predictable outcomes, but does allow the actors to run a little. Namely, Tucci gets to flex muscles that he only gets to show a hint of in most of his projects.
Like Sam Elliott in The Hero or the late Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky, Tucci finally gets the floor to himself. A composer holding the wand for the first time. While we know where Swenson is going and getting himself into, Tucci keeps you hooked. He’s such a phenomenal actor who never has to overplay a hand or ham it up to show you what a character means to the audience. He makes every hard gesture seem effortless and natural.
This is the kind of role that an actor does for scraps just to have the opportunity to stand on the pitching mound for so long. Tucci is a classically trained performer who carries this flick. Timlin doesn’t fare as well, but holds her own with Tucci enough to keep Angela from being a standout in a bad way. Sedgwick is fine in her limited role, thriving in a crucial late scene that plays as uncomfortable as Levine would hope for in script.
Certain people may detect a sexual harassment thread in this film that Levine himself didn’t even know he was plugging into as strongly. Others, like myself, are obsessed with movies about tormented writers looking for a few pages in every corner.
Submission’s finale carries an honesty that provides hope while not shying away from the despair of a bad situation. If I had to compare the end to something, it’d be a cup of black coffee. Take it for what it’s worth, and you’ll appreciate it. Expect more from something so plain, and you’ll be disappointed.
Without creating something wholly original, Levine will pierce the hearts of writers everywhere with Submission. He’s getting at something that should take full stage in his next project. At its heart lies an honest take on the obsession and jealousy of writers, in addition to a brilliant Stanley Tucci.