American Pastoral (United States, 2016)October 20, 2016
American Pastoral is another in a long line of movie adaptations of revered novels that lose something significant in their translation from page to screen. Although it’s not possible to argue that Philip Roth’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning book couldn’t be made into a powerful, compelling film, this isn’t it. Overwrought and disjointed, Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut is surprisingly faithful to aspects of the text but the overall presentation is conventional and disappointing. Key aspects of the written work, such as the subversive undercurrents of suburbia, are diminished or invisible in the movie.
To the extent that American Pastoral is about the toxic relationship between conventional 1960s-era middle-class businessman Seymour Levov (McGregor) and his militant revolutionary daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning), the movie is adequate. It takes the time to develop their relationship through Merry’s childhood and into her early adult life before anti-establishment antipathies push her to act violently and recklessly. She plants a bomb in a local post office and a bystander is killed in the explosion. This sends her into exile, leaving behind the wreckage of a father searching for answers and a mother (Jennifer Connelly) experiencing a mental breakdown. Seymour’s attempts to locate Merry, which comprise nearly half of the film, become tiresome and the production isn’t sure how to handle one of Roth’s most ambiguous characters, the feisty Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry).
John Romano’s screenplay attempts to remain faithful to the structure of the novel by establishing the movie’s “present” at the 45th high school anniversary of famous author Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) who learns of Seymour’s recent death while strolling the halls of his old New Jersey high school. Most of the film takes place in flashback, with Nathan narrating as he pieces together the fragments of Seymour’s life. The movie returns to the present at the end to allow for an epilogue that is intended to provide a sense of closure.
There’s ambition in the movie just as there is in the book but, where the latter often succeeds, the former frequently comes up short. However, one concept that American Pastoral captures with some degree of achievement is the sense of guilt and despair experienced by the parents of children who commit heinous acts. Initially, Seymour cannot believe that Merry has done what she’s accused of but, when he eventually accepts the truth, he can’t set aside his love. He can’t reconcile the angry terrorist with the stuttering little girl he once held in his arms. In the film’s most potent scene, Seymour and his wife offer their condolences to the widow of the man killed in Merry’s action. Her response to Seymour’s rambling apology/explanation illustrates her understanding of the difficulty of his situation. She is sympathetic because she realizes that while she and her family will recover (and have their memories intact), Seymour may never heal and the past, for him, will be tainted.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about American Pastoral is that neither McGregor nor Jennifer Connelly excels in front of the camera. Their performances are overly broad and there are times when they are unable to restrain a tendency to go over-the-top. Dakota Fanning who as a child actress was hailed as one of her generation’s brightest stars, shows that the progression of years (she’s now 22) hasn’t diminished her talent. Her vitriolic, uncompromising portrayal is one of the film’s assets. Without question, Valorie Curry captures the essence of Rita even if the screenplay isn’t sure how to define her. Although she represents the novel’s biggest open question, the lack of resolution about her in the movie seems like an unresolved plot point.
For Ewan McGregor, this is an ambitious first effort behind the camera. The source material is a strength and a weakness. Roth’s American Pastoral is too good for something engaging not to emerge on screen. However, anything less than a spectacular adaptation, which this clearly is not, can be seen as a letdown. (It may be unfair to attribute many of the film’s failings to McGregor. He stepped in at the last minute after Philip Noyce left the production and therefore had little input into the script, the casting, and many of the preproduction details.) American Pastoral therefore stands as a classic mixed bag and may be better experienced when it reaches home video than in a theater.
American Pastoral (United States, 2016)
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegert, David Strathairn, Valorie Curry
Screenplay: John Romano, based on the novel by Philip Roth
Cinematography: Martin Ruhe
Music: Alexandre Desplat
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
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