Overview: Based on Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral charts the downfall of all-american hero Swede Levov as his daughter Merry gets caught up in radical politics and terrorism during the 1960s. Lionsgate; 2016; Rated R; 108 minutes.
Too Much to Chew: In adapting Philip Roth’s American Pastoral for his directorial debut, Ewan McGregor demonstrates either extreme foolishness, extreme arrogance, or complete ignorance of the complexities of the subject matter. Roth’s sprawling novel attempted nothing less than an autopsy of the American Dream following the tumultuous Sixties as illustrated by the destruction of Seymour “Swede” Levov, the favorite son of Newark’s Jewish community immortalized for his skill at high school sports and his atypical Nordic good looks. Roth’s fault: he tried to tell a story about the American Family, not An American Family. The book is a gummy, uncoagulated mess that misplaces a few dozen pages of genuine venom into a tepid morass. I’m curious why Roth felt the book necessary in the first place; he did a perfectly fine job diagnosing the American zeitgeist in Goodbye, Columbus—the short story, not the book. But in the distinguished tradition of Willa Cather’s One of Ours and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, American Pastoral was just mediocre enough to justify winning its author the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as a consolation prize for previously overlooked masterpieces. So instead of adapting any of the early work that established him as one of America’s leading literary talents, we get this.
Weak Material, Decent Execution: As a whole, the individual bits and pieces that make up American Pastoral don’t work. But when viewed one at a time, it becomes clear that McGregor has some directorial skill. He knows how to wrap a camera around an aspect ratio, creating understated yet pleasing widescreen compositions. Even more importantly, he knows how to hold a shot and when not to edit. Nowhere is this more apparent than an early scene where Levov (McGregor) and his former beauty queen wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) visit a therapist to get to the bottom of their daughter’s insistent stuttering. McGregor and Dawn are held in a medium-close two-shot as Dawn yells at the therapist for suggesting that she may be stuttering on purpose. Dawn sits back down, exiting the frame, leaving McGregor smiling in pleased triumph at his wife for a few seconds before they cut. In the entire film I spotted only one disastrous error of form. It happens late in the film when Levov confronts the same therapist years later after learning she hid Merry (Dakota Fanning) after she bombed a local post office. He slams her against the wall and screams in her face that her actions led to Merry getting raped while on the lam in Chicago and brainwashed by violent radicals. Right at the height of the scene’s intensity, it suddenly fades to black.
Overall: But again I must stress that the trouble with American Pastoral is that these individually competent scenes are strung together into an inchoate whole. The novel is told largely in flashback by a narrator (who frustratingly vanishes as a character but not as a presence after the first third) who learns in the first 50 or so pages that Levov is dead and that his daughter was a terrorist. The rest of the novel picks through the story of Levov’s life with a general but relaxed linear chronology, allowing Roth to briefly visit the past and future to provide context or dramatic irony for his tragic downfall. Roth frequently devotes entire chapters to exploring the inner psyches of his characters. But stripped of these introspections, the characters’ actions in the film seem completely arbitrary. Merry goes from sunny ingénue to indoctrinated radical in less than five minutes. Dawn–one of the most complex, compelling characters in the novel—is devolved into a mentally unbalanced harpy. And Levov? He’s just a good man with a string of extraordinary bad luck. His major sin was his own easy perfection: as the owner of a massive glove factory, he was too benevolent to his workers to be villainized by the Communists as a capitalist pig; as a father, he was too doting and devoted to be the monster a radicalized Merry needed to justify her actions.
Featured Image: Lionsgate