American Pastoral

October 21st, 2016




American Pastoral is a large hunk of meat that director Ewan McGregor decided to bite into for his first time behind the camera. Although I respect the ambition from the Trainspotting star, his effort to turn Philip Roth’s 1997 novel into a success, is way more than even a well seasoned veteran could swallow. Part melodramatic and depressing, there is little to enjoy, in a tale that captures a dark transition from post WWII America to an instantly angry 60’s society. There is promise for better outputs by McGregor in the future, with kinder material, but American Pastoral is joyless. 

I have not read the source material to be able to comment on how the film adapts, but the first mistake is McGregor casting himself as protagonist Seymour “Swede” Levov. His portrayal as the Jewish all-American athlete from Newark, New Jersey does not add up to the Scottish born actor, among other things. We begin at a high school reunion, with narrator Nathan Zuckerman (Goodnight and Good Luck’s David Strathairn) reminiscing with Levov’s brother, flashing back to Swede’s return from the war to his cookie cutter home and his marriage to anglo-shiksa-catholic beauty pageant winner Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). They have a daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning), with hair golden like the sun and an intense stutter, which is so persistent it shows reason for her parents to worry, that is, till she becomes a radical 16 year old, so hell-bent on destroying “the system” that her angst begins to shatter the family foundation.

After back and fourth arguments, where father chides daughter for her increasingly outrageous views, Swede hopes to keep his angry little girl at bay with compromise, asking her to bring the fight home by protesting in their quaint little town. This backfires in the form of Merry bombing the local gas station, leaving two families broken, and Swede in denial of his very lost daughter. Honestly, she gives hippies a bad name. A search by the FBI begins and Swede finds a fellow radical named Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) attempting to seduce and bribe him during this time of misery. The search for daddy’s little girl is a torturous lost cause.  

There are a myriad of problems to blame for American Pastoral’s failings. The material from Roth’s novel feels difficult to brighten, while the performances from all involved are often wooden and soap opera-like. Conflict between McGregor and Connelly are shockingly amateur, while the script from John Romano never rises above the downward path. This is a bleak film, where the heroes efforts to save his daughter feels futile, without a single moment of levity, and never a positive moment of family bliss. Fanning’s performance is the highlight, but this portrayal of the daughter shows wicked signs of rebellion at an early age, suggesting she is born without a single shred of morality. McGregor and cinematographer Martin Ruhe light and frame scenes exceptionally, that leads me to believe Obi-Won deserves another shot at directing, but with better material. 

Nevertheless, American Pastoral is a depressing piece of cinema. I left the theater finding nothing to hold onto. I know everyone involved here has been better, maybe chalk it up to first time director jitters. The story about Seymour “Swede” Levov is a burden that no parent should have to deal with and something that most audiences won’t enjoy. 

1 ½ Stars

Written by: Leo Brady

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