American Pastoral Is Far From A Classic
McGregor’s Film Doesn’t Come Close To Reaching The Novel’s Heights.
Movies adapted from books are rarely as captivating as their source material. After all, a script has 120 pages to cover material a novel spreads over several hundred pages. In his directorial debut, Ewan McGregor chose to adapt Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral. With its complex characters and complicated themes, many have cited Roth’s work as unfilmable. Even a veteran movie director would have difficulty condensing Roth’s heady subject matter into a 2-hour film. McGregor tackles the material with great ambition, however, his great ambition doesn’t translate into a great film.
American Pastoral begins after the death of Seymour “Swede” Levov, (Ewan McGregor). Seymour’s brother Jerry (Rupert Evans) crosses paths with old friend Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) at a high school reunion. As the men get to chatting, they circle back to Seymour and the ominous events that shrouded his life. The film takes us back to the early days of the Levov family, a trio which also includes Seymour’s wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning).
With a successful business, a former beauty queen as his wife, and a beautiful little girl, Seymour embodies the American dream. As Merry goes through adolescence, the Levov’s idyllic life begins falling apart. Merry grows into a natural rebel. She becomes obsessed with social activism and starts disobeying her parents’ wishes. Shortly thereafter, Merry falls in with a group of radicals and the Levovs find themselves with deeper concerns than their daughter breaking curfew. After revolutionaries bomb the local post office, Merry becomes the prime suspect. With his daughter accused of murder and on the run, Seymour must do everything he can to keep his life together as his world crumbles around him.
Even though I haven’t read Roth’s novel, I can see the places where John Romano’s script buckles under the weight of the dense subject matter. There are instances when the plot seems to head somewhere greater than where it ends up. Those moments fizzle out into a bunch of vague concepts, half-notions, and unexplored themes. In a broad sense, the film accomplishes its goal of drawing parallels between the tumultuous 60’s and the way Seymour’s perfect life unravels. Considering the amount of sociopolitical unrest we’ve experienced in 2016, it’s a shame McGregor couldn’t craft a story with even 25% of the cultural relevance of Roth’s 1997 novel. There are so many lessons we can learn about the present by looking at the past. American Pastoral is a wasted opportunity.
At its core, American Pastoral is about love and heartbreak viewed through the lens of a father/daughter relationship. Love is a powerful force in our lives. Love can be the wind in someone’s sails or the anchor dragging them down to the bottom of the sea; McGregor wants to explore both sides. What’s particularly interesting here is the notion that we can experience love without having it reciprocated. Seymour’s desire to bring back his daughter is also destroying him. The film forces us to consider the question, “When is it OK to give up on someone we love?” It’s a difficult question that the film doesn’t answer.
American Pastoral loses points for wasting its solid cast. None of the actors feel out of step with the material; the problem is that McGregor doesn’t bring out anyone’s A-game either. Everyone is just, OK. When you have veteran actors/actresses like Connelly, Fanning, Aduba, and Strathairn, you would think that the film could stumble its way into at least one memorable performance.
As the film’s lead, McGregor also turns in a middle-of-the-road performance. By mimicking the golly-gee-wiz way people spoke during the 60’s, McGregor masks some of the unnatural cadences in his shaky American accent. It’s fun watching his Ward Cleaver-type dad shtick early on during the film’s lighter moments, especially as he plays off of his crabby old-Jewish father (Peter Riegert). As the story takes a darker turn, the character feels out of sync with the material. McGregor is great at playing a cheery all-American everyman, but when the situation calls for more nuance and depth, the performance goes too broad.
Even as American Pastoral starts to drag, the film remains a feast for the eyes. At times, Martin Ruhe’s cinematography took me out of the movie. There were moments where I stopped thinking about the story and just gawked at the stunning visuals. Ruhe and McGregor do a wonderful job utilizing imagery to give the audience a sense of Seymour’s unraveling life. Whether capturing sunshine pouring over a field or a garbage-strewn alley, Ruhe ensures every single frame of film is worthy of the big screen treatment.
I suspect that once fans of Philip Roth’s novel catch a whiff of this adaptation they’ll turn their noses in the air and make haste in the opposite direction. People going in without any expectations will find a remarkably average film. American Pastoral’s themes didn’t move me, the performances never wowed me, and there are plenty of nits to be picked. And yet, I remained invested in Seymour’s plight right up until the end. That’s more than I can say about many of the films I’ve reviewed recently. American Pastoral is a flawed film but not one without merits. Even as the movie’s execution is lacking, I get the sense that this picture is the work of an inspired filmmaker. If nothing else, American Pastoral has left me intrigued to see what McGregor does next.