The pages of one of the 20th century’s most endearing novels comes to life on the silver screen, in Phillip Roth’s “American Pastoral”. Starring first time director Ewan Mcgregor, the movie follows and all American family across several decades, as their idyllic existence is shattered by social and political turmoil that will change the fabric of American culture forever. Seymour Levov (Mcgregor), a once legendary high school athlete who is now a successful businessman is married to Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), a former beauty queen. The turmoil brews beneath the polished veneer of Swede’s life when his beloved daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) disappears after being accused of committing a violent act. It is then that Swede dedicates himself to finding Merry and reuniting his family. What he discovers shakes him to the core, forcing him to look beneath the surface and confront the chaos that is shaping the modern world around him. No American family will ever be the same. “American Pastoral” is rated R for some strong sexual material, language and brief violent images.
There’s definitely a lot of evidence to Mcgregor being a first time director, but none more evident than that of his emotional integrity, and because of that “American Pastoral” is a failed attempt to pass itself off as a meaningful tribute to 1960’s paranoia within the escalating tensions from Vietnam. Going into this movie, I was curious to see the mystery of this troubled family unfold and see how it played against the backdrop of a war that nobody on home soil supported. Roth’s ideals for the story has always been that every family has problems, and sometimes even the most physically gifted struggle with some of the greater feats of strength within the psychological layers of the American family. The problem though, is Mcgregor’s film plays everything one step behind what we have come to know as compelling drama. There was always a yearning for a greater emphasis of the bigger picture in this documented world, and not just the effects of characters in a family who weren’t presented in the brightest of potential lights.
In a nutshell, this movie lacks the kind of substance or leveling message that crafted Roth’s story as one of the most monumental of the last twenty years. Mcgregor is a capable enough director when it comes to his artistic merit. This is a beautifully shot film, with plenty of establishing shots of the rural countryside being displayed for the audience. But it’s in his directing to characters that makes this difficult to follow or even care. When you first meet the Levov family, you will find yourself failing to relate to a lot of their struggles. The intention to display them as the perfect American family only comes back to bite this film because their lack of character depth in exposition causes some flimsy problems in character traits to come out of nowhere midway through the second act. This is definitely a case of rushed storytelling, as opposed to letting the history foreshadow the story of what is to come. The movie certainly isn’t a predictable one, but that isn’t a benefit when most effects don’t resonate well from the cause that they came from. In the end, the story mostly felt like it was making a mountain out of an ant-hill to further what little drama actually materialized within the story, and that lack of care with the development of material really weighs heavily on an ending that had very little wiggle room against contrivances to send the audience home happy.
The performances aren’t memorable enough, albeit except maybe Fanning who always delivers a silent sting. Of the trio of big name actors in this movie, Dakota is the character we should care the least for, yet rings the truest in terms of what this story and these events mean to her character. Fanning glows a ghoulishly haunting demeanor particularly in the third act of the movie, when all rules are off. For Mcgregor and Connelly, this feels like an opportunity to get lost as their characters, but we don’t ever truly understand the motivations for such an uprising in change. Connelly in particular is held in the air to be anything of any kind of remote importance to this story, settling for the mundane in the ever-changing atmosphere of the household. Her character is displayed as shallow and emotionless as her story, and sadly none of that is of Jennifer’s doing. Mcgregor is decent in the movie, but some laughably bad dialogue left his character feeling like a less-than believable shadow-filler to the reputation that the movie garnered for his character. For the intro of the movie, we are told how great and honorable “The Swede” (A terrible nickname by the way, because he isn’t Swedish) is, yet Mcgregor never lives up to that social standing. We never catch a remote glimpse of a hero in motion, and instead settle for a middle aged fossil who can’t keep up with the revolution that is taking place right outside of his door.
The ending left me feeling like this story didn’t really move much from its initial blows in the opening act. How you can usually tell a good screenplay is in the intersecting nature of a constantly moving script that took us on a vast journey from point A to point B, and screenwriter John Romano, whose adaptations from novels usually springs from the pages, evaporates the nuance within such nostalgic literature that never had a problem emotionally or physically moving its readers from a bolt of unsettling parental fears. The possibility at one last final moving scene settles to dust, as the screen faded to black, diminishing the last chance at a memorable scene within the clutches of this blunder.
“American Pastoral” is a stern warning that not every novel has admirable intentions to be adapted to the big screen. It’s a 103 minute dreary dragging of incompetent storytelling and hollow substance in material to ever require watching. Mcgregor’s first directing effort shows promise in design tapestry, but his ambitious reach in compelling direction is far outweighed by the miniscule grasp he settles for in short-cutting every moment of moving drama within the film. Instead of giving the audience something enticing about that family that lives behind the picket fence, it only further cements how little is actually going on.