Movie Review: American Pastoral

An adaptation of a Philip Roth novel about the 1960s should have been more evocative

American Pastoral 
Directed by Ewan McGregor
With Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegert, Rupert Evans, Uzo Aduba. Molly Parker, David Strathairn

Ewan McGregor makes his directing review with American Pastoral, an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel about the turbulent 1960s and '70s. The novel is over 400 pages long, and in boiling it down to 108 minutes, McGregor and screenwriter John Romano keep the plot but miss all of the nuance and details.

McGregor stars in the film as well, playing Swede Levov, a high school athlete who on the surface seems to have it all. He marries a former beauty queen, Dawn Dwyer (played by Jennifer Connelly), and runs a moderately successful glove factory in Newark, New Jersey.

The couple has a daughter, Merry, who has a speech impediment, the one slight imperfection on their idyllic existence. As an adult, Merry is played by Dakota Fanning.

Merry finds little to do in the rural community that the Levovs have moved to. It isn't the bland 1960s suburbs. They have gone all the way out and bought a small farm with a few cows who are more like huge pets. Merry goes to New York City in her spare time to protest the Vietnam War, and grows increasingly confrontational with her parents over political issues. It starts as typical teenage rebellion but grows into something bigger.

The family drama unfolds against a background of real events: bits of speeches by President Lyndon Johnson, newspaper articles about protests and eventually a riot. For Swede and his circle of friends, this is not a big deal. They have seen wars before. Merry, however, makes it her life and becomes involved with radical people that her parents never see and know little about. This eventually tears the family apart.

The film is told in flashback. Writer Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) goes to a high school reunion and finds out that his former school hero, rather than achieving the success everyone thought, had just died after a tragedy-filled life. Swede's brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans), relates the tale to the writer.

The movie does a good enough job in re-creating the late 1960s and '70s. The fashions and hairstyles of the older generation contrast with that of the younger people. The political dialogue also rings true, with Merry and some of her associates being particularly radical in their condemnation of capitalism. During the film, there is a panorama of rich and poor, as well as black and white.

But the film misses the fine points of the novel. It turns into a sort of missing-person crime drama, but glosses over many of the other elements of the 1970s that led to Swede's fall from grace.

The acting and production can't be faulted, all are on a high level. McGregor does an excellent rendition of a concerned father, and Connelly creates a compelling trophy wife who grows more cold and distant as time goes on. Fanning does a passable job as the radical teenager, but doesn't quite draw people into her point of view. She doesn't earn as much sympathy from the audience as she could. Valorie Curry also makes a slightly better impression as Rita Cohen, a mysterious woman who is also involved in the radical underground.

But the script is just on the surface. It lacks the complexity needed to pull off the material. As a missing person's case, the material works fine but there is so much more to the era that could have been explored. The film at 108 minutes seems interminably long, dragging from one issue to the next as Swede's life unravels. The film would actually have been better if it was longer, giving more depth to the historical background.

Great novels are notoriously difficult to film, and Philip Roth's novels have also had a mixed record making it to the screen. The Human Stain, filmed in 2003, stumbled at the box office and got very mixed reviews. Goodbye Columbus (1969) had a decent reception, but Portnoy's Complaint (1972) didn't do as well with critics. Elegy (2008), based on The Dying Animal, failed at the box office, as did The Humbling (2014).

McGregor as a director shows some skill in paying attention to the details and eliciting good performances. Hopefully he will have a chance to direct again with material that is a bit easier to rein in.

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