American Pastoral: Video Review

Directed by Ewan McGregor
Lionsgate, 108 minutes, R (language, violent images, sexual content)
★★ 1/2   

American Pastoral was one of the biggest box offices bombs of all of 2016. In most places it closed before the theater popcorn filled the hopper and it took in a mere $541,000. It's not that terrible, but being merely mediocre isn't good enough for an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Philip Roth (1998).

To repeat a point I've made in other reviews, there simply haven't been many decent films about the 1960s counterculture. Most are either embarrassingly romantic or conservative screeds. American Pastoral gets credit for at least attempting to interject nuance, but ultimately it's as flat a bowling alley. The blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of director Ewan McGregor, who simply hasn't mastered that role at this stage of his career. The film opens in 1995, with Roth's frequent alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), in Newark to attend his 45th high school reunion. There he runs into an old friend, Jerry Levov and right away we have problems. For old friends, Nathan and Jerry are icier than freezer pops in Greenland. The scene is a hackneyed device for one of the most shopworn of all filmmaking techniques: the voice over narrative that sets up a flashback.

American Pastoral centers on Jerry's brother, Seymour ("Swede"), who was the high school/college Golden Boy who married the Golden Girl and former Miss Jersey, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly). After amusing but overly sweet overtures to convince Swede's father, Lou (Peter Reigert) that a nice Jewish boy and a nice Roman Catholic girl are meant for each other, Swede (McGregor) and Dawn proceed to build a Golden Life in the Golden 1950s: a tidy home, Swede's takeover of Lou's glove factory, a happy interracial workforce, and the birth of a flaxen-haired daughter upon whom her parents dote. But we all know what Shakespeare said about the glister of gold. The Vietnam War radicalizes daughter Meredith (Dakota Fanning), mom and pop are at a loss to know what to do with foul-mouthed angry as a hornet "Merry," and are too inept to prevent her from trudging over to New York City to hang out with other radicals. The Levovs vainly try to stay above the turmoil of the 1960s—rather turgidly told through stitched-together news clips—and to maintain the historic alliance between blacks and Jews in the wake of the Newark race riot. The latter gets a stagey treatment, by which I mean it truly looks more like a theater set than an urban riot. Piece by piece, Merry is slipping away. When a bombing kills an innocent shopkeeper the Levovs have known forever, Merry is the prime suspect and disappears within a group that's the Weather Underground thinly veiled. Every new bombing makes the Levovs wonder if Merry is involved.

Roth readers will recognize another common trope: the erosion of the American Dream. (How meta—a trope about a trope!) Dawn is metaphorically and then physically transformed by all of this, while Swede grows obsessed with trying to find his daughter and wonders what has happened to basic human decency when his only connection to her is Rita Cohen (Valerie Curry), a vulgar slogan-chanting taunt-the-Establishment punk. The deeper Swede goes, the more his American pastoral turns to parched earth.
McGregor departs from the novel at various places as the film winds to a clunky conclusion—none of which are improvements.

There's a lesson here: Don't try to upgrade a book that carries off literature's top prize. Here's another: Ewan McGregor is much better in front of the camera than behind it. It's an interesting idea to play off the liberalism of his central family. We seldom see the clash between liberals and radicals in films about the 1960s, though the two did indeed despise each other with as much fervor as they battled conservatives. There's also an enticing theme of liberals betraying each other. Sadly, McGregor lacks the panache to flesh out these moments or to bring to life much of the detail from Roth's novel (some of which was drawn from actual people he knew).

Maybe it's not so surprising that it took nearly twenty years for anyone to make American Pastoral into a film. Perhaps it's simply too sprawling in scope to lend itself to a good adaptation. Should you watch McGregor's effort? There's certainly no harm in downloading it. Like I said; it's neither terribly good not terribly bad. It just made me sigh. If we can make so many great films about Vietnam, why haven't we made at least one about the war at home?

Rob Weir 

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