Philip Roth's Pulitzer prize winning novel about a family torn asunder by political tumult in the 1960s is rendered flat and emotionally inert in actor/director Ewan McGregor's film.
With the possible exception of “Goodbye, Columbus,” even seasoned directors have struggled to turn adaptations of Philip Roth novels into representative motion pictures. So, imagine how far Ewan McGregor is in over his head in making his directorial debut with his take on Roth’s Pulitzer-winning “American Pastoral.”
Let’s just say he’s deep enough to drown in his own mediocrity. What should be a rich and heartbreaking story of a family torn asunder by political tumult in the 1960s is instead flat and emotionally inert. Obviously, being under the tutelage of such heavyweights as Mike Mills (“Beginners”), Roman Polanski (“The Ghost Writer”), Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) and Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”) hasn’t rubbed off.
Yet McGregor the director does a fantastic job in coaxing a fine lead performance from Ewan McGregor the actor. As Seymour “Swede” Levov – Newark’s golden-boy athlete and heir to his father’s successful leather glove empire – McGregor holds the screen even when John Romano’s adapted script lets him down in driving home Roth’s themes of equality, civic responsibility, prosperity and the pursuit of the American dream.
In the beginning, Swede’s seemingly got it all – the beauty-queen wife, Dawn, (Jennifer Connelly), and a precocious daughter, Merry (Hannah Nordberg, later Dakota Fanning), who works a cute stutter. They dwell blissfully in a sprawling farmhouse 30 miles outside Newark in Old Rimrock. Life is great – until – the social revolution of the post-Camelot era wreaks havoc on both the country and the Levov family, namely Merry. Now a teenager, Merry gets involved with Weathermen-like radicals who blow up buildings. She has a foul mouth and calls her parents “contented middle-class people.” She tolerates her dad, but loathes her mom. Merry eventually disappears. Swede goes from doting husband and father to desperate dad. His marriage suffers. Dawn grows mentally unfit.
McGregor steadily pushes hot-button issues that are ripe for manipulating audiences. He’s too obvious. When he’s not staging hokey re-enactments of riots outside the glove factory, McGregor swerves the movie into a where’s-Merry? mystery. To that end, the Swede chases leads through unsavory streets and into strange hotel rooms.
The film’s biggest problem is that McGregor raises topical issues that he doesn’t quite know how to coherently address. There are so many ideas in “American Pastoral” that it’s overwhelming; much too lush for a standard two-hour feature. Another liability is Merry, or more specifically, Fanning. She’s either screaming or robotic. Never does she invest you in Merry’s fate. In fact, grown Merry is so selfish she’s impossible to like. But then none of the women here fare well.
It is told in flashback from a 45th high school reunion. Swede’s brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans), along with pal – and frequent Roth regular narrator – Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), recall the Golden Boy and his eventual demise as part and parcel of a clunky framing device. The last shot (no spoilers), though, is a dandy. Well done. It’s just too bad everything that came before it is so subpar. Connelly shows early promise when she goes toe-to-toe with Swede’s father (a terrific Peter Riegert) over her Catholic upbringing and his Jewish faith. McGregor then all but squanders her. Ditto for the Uzo Aduba, who gets one big moment (telling off a National Guardsman), and from the versatile Molly Parker (“House of Cards”), who plays the psychiatrist helping to fix Merry’s stutter. Could it be because her parents intimidate her with their beauty? Swede and Dawn don’t buy that theory, but it never strays far from the narrative. Valorie Curry’s young revolutionary, Rita, is the film’s most interesting character, sharing a helluva skeevy scene with McGregor. Curry is so good you wish she had more than a handful of scenes before being rudely tossed aside.
Once you peel away the layers, “American Pastoral” is at heart a father-daughter love story. McGregor, all furrowed brow, is persistent in his portrayal of Swede, but from behind the camera he’s as lost as Merry.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
AMERICAN PASTORAL (R for sexual material, language and violent images) Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Uzo Aduba, Peter Riegert, David Strathairn. Grade: C