Movies: ‘American Pastoral’ misses the point

McGregor does his best in the lead role, but never for a moment does he suggest the kind of vitality that captivated the young Zuckerman.

November 10, 2016 17:59
3 minute read.
American Pastoral

American Pastoral. (photo credit: PR)

Hebrew title: Pastorala Amerikanit
Directed by Ewan McGregor
With Ewan McGregor, David Strathairn, Rupert Evans, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning
Running time: 108 minutes
Rating: R (for some strong sexual material, language and brief violent images)

Philip Roth’s 1997 novel American Pastoral was one of his strongest works, an epic meditation on what it meant to be Jewish in a post-war world, in which the fantasy of truly fitting in as an American seemed to be within reach. It’s the story of a larger-than-life character, a tall, blond Jewish high school star athlete from Newark known as the Swede because of his Aryan looks.

The alter ego of several of Roth’s works, Nathan Zuckerman, is fascinated by the Swede and the tragedy that shadowed his seemingly idyllic life. If anyone could have escaped the darkness that haunts most Roth characters, it would have been the Swede.

How his life unraveled is truly a compelling story.

It’s a story that certainly appealed to Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, who stars in the film and directed it, his feature-film directorial debut. But what he has done here, along with screenwriter, John Romano, is taken this intricate story and stripped it of all its complexity, leaving the bare bones of a plot that resembles a television movie of the week.

What remains is a story about Zuckerman (David Strathairn, a good choice for a Roth surrogate), a cynical, aging writer who goes to a high school reunion on a whim and reconnects with his classmate Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans), who is about to bury his brother, Swede Levov (McGregor).

We are introduced to Swede through a montage of his high school athletic prowess and his World War II heroism. Coming out of the army, he returns to Newark, back to his father’s glove factory.

Readers of the novel will be either relieved or disappointed to learn that the business is little more than a backdrop here, although the intricacies of glove manufacturing took up such a central place in the novel. There, these details were meant to give a visceral look at the minutiae of the capitalist American dream and featured a weird episode where Jerry makes a coat out of hamster skins to impress a girl. In the film, it’s just a family business. The Swede joins it happily and marries the gentile goddess of his dreams, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), a former Miss New Jersey. Together, they settle in a rural area where Dawn raises cows, and they have a daughter.

It’s the daughter who causes all the problems. Merry, played as an adolescent by Dakota Fanning and as a child by two other actresses, is always troubled and in conflict with her parents. Merry’s stutter is a key part of her childhood troubles, but the movie can’t quite place the impulse that leads the 12-year-old Merry (Hannah Nordberg) to behave seductively with her father. Spurned by him, the movie seems to be saying, she is driven into radical politics during the Vietnam War era, eventually taking part in bombings and going into hiding.

The real drama is Swede’s quest to understand and reclaim the mystifying, angry daughter he has lost. As his quest consumes him, it drives a wedge between him and his wife, who just wants to forget and get on with her life. While this may sound like compelling drama, it reduces the substance of the novel to a list of bullet points. This overly literal adaptation leaves out virtually everything that made the novel memorable.

McGregor does his best in the lead role, but never for a moment does he suggest the kind of vitality that captivated the young Zuckerman. While Connelly and Fanning are good in their roles, they have few memorable lines.

Peter Riegert, a wonderful character actor, does nice work as Swede’s father, Lou; and Uzo Aduba, who is best known as Suzanne on the TV series Orange Is the New Black, plays it straight here as Lou’s devoted secretary.

But their fine acting can’t make up for the emptiness at the center of this story. Roth is notoriously difficult to adapt, although James Schamus did a remarkable job with the lesser-known novel Indignation, in a film released this fall. The best thing I can say about this movie is that I hope it inspires people to read, or re-read, the novel.

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