American Pastoral is about several things: generational abandonment, parental delusion, and the radical political activism that rose in reaction to the Vietnam war. These are all fascinating themes, navigated brilliantly and eloquently in the epic Philip Roth novel on which It’s based, but jumbled and tripped over and strangled in the film version, directed by star and first-time filmmaker Ewan McGregor. Like too many book adaptations, the film is shackled by the source material instead of emboldened by it, choosing too often to stay keenly faithful to the book when broader, cinematic sweeps would give the onscreen story more life.
McGregor and screenwriter John Romano bumble from the beginning, framing the story, like the book, by following novelist / narrator Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) in the present day as he returns to his hometown of Newark for his 45-year high school reunion. There, he learns that his hometown hero, Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor, who’s campaigned to play the role for years), has died and had a grand tragedy of a life. We’re then whisked back in time to Swede’s heydey to start the story proper, but it comes as a stinging realization as the movie wears on that these modern-day interludes actually encumber and distract from the story, their only welcome contribution being the always-wonderful Strathairn’s presence.
A high-school sports phenomenon and Marine vet, the legendary Swede finds an equally good-looking life partner in beauty queen Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly). After taking the reins of his father’s successful glove company, he finds himself a picturesque farmhouse where he and Dawn raise their daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning). The dark cloud of the Vietnam War looms over their pretty American daydream, causing a domestic dissidence that manifests itself as a chronic stutter in Merry’s voice and later, in her teens, evolves into an obsession with the atrocities of war and radical activism.
As Merry gets older and more unruly, Swede tightens his grip, forbidding her to go to New York to see her activist friends and suggesting that she keep her acts of protest contained to their small town. Inevitably, his grip-tightening results in his daughter slipping completely out of his grasp: Merry disappears without a trace on the same day a local department store is blown to smithereens by a bomb, killing its owner in the early morning hours. Police and townsfolk believe young Merry to be the culprit, which drives a stake between Swede and Dawn (she descends into near madness) and sends the desperate father on a quest to find his daughter and, perhaps more importantly, a modicum of the safety and innocence they once knew.
The grand tragedy here is that, just as Merry slips away from Swede, the story slips away from McGregor, proving too vast and dense for his two-hour big screen treatment. Roth’s novels are infamously considered to be “unfilmable”, though if one were to do it successfully, it would likely be with a less wordy, more purely cinematic approach than what the Scottish actor has chosen to take here. Roth’s twisty prose may not translate well to screen, but imagery and sound can be equally evocative and precise in a different way. It comes as no surprise that McGregor, in his first directorial outing, isn’t versed enough to match Roth’s prowess.
Beyond this larger fatal flaw, American Pastoral has issues on all fronts. The performances are stilted for the most part, with most scenes feeling melodramatic when meant to be tragic, flat as a pancake when meant to be funny. McGregor looks the part as the straight-laced Swede, though he seems to be constantly struggling to emote while weighed down by the flaccid dialogue (his shaky American accent is another a big distraction). Fanning is a bright spot, capturing quite well the youthful angst and anger that largely defined the mood of the time. Her scenes with McGregor are good, but the tragic father-daughter relationship that should be heartbreaking winds up feeling hollow and lost in the clutter that is the rest of this ill-conceived movie.