In “Submission” Stanley Tucci has this little chuckle, deployed 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.
The professor’s practiced chuckle also proves useful when navigating conversations with an attractive student who idolizes him, an issue of sexual boundary-trampling that will become the crux of the movie.
We’ll get to the crux, but about that chuckle: I swear that Tucci delivers it in such a way that it expresses a dozen different meanings and feelings, all appropriate to the position in which he’s trapped at that particular 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.
Anyway, back to the sex. 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 ever-present scarves (of which he seems to have at least a dozen), 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. 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 truly is 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 movie 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 come.
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, is played by Kyra Sedgwick. She nails a couple of gutsy moments, expressing amazement that that cliche 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 the film already feels outdated.
“Submission” (3 stars)
Stanley Tucci does a superb turn as a creative-writing teacher (with writer’s block himself) who allows himself to become infatuated with a talented student (Addison Timlin). The material, with its sexual-harassment overtones, sounds timely, yet the film is somehow outdated — but Tucci makes it worth watching anyway.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, language
Opening: Varsity theater