Taking the entire social and political revolution of the 1960s and stuffing into the life of one man is a tough challenge, so the praise that Philip Roth gets for pulling it off with his 1997 novel American Pastoral is well deserved. But how does one take the “indigenous American berserk” of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and make it flow under two hours?
Praise should be given to Ewan McGregor, in his directorial debut no less, for taking a swing at it with screenwriter John Romano (The Lincoln Lawyer, Intolerable Cruelty, Hell on Wheels), and McGregor takes a pretty good swing at it. Alas, he just barely gets on first base with his film version of American Pastoral. On top of directing, McGregor also stars as Seymour “Swede” Levov as the premiere 1960s American: beloved high school athlete who married the local town beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and took over his father’s successful glove-making business. Everyone loves Swede, and Swede loves his life. But his teenage daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) despises the perfect life her parents live and the comfort of Johnson’s America. She wants to rebel, revolt, and run to New York City to be with some very strange friends. Then one day, the local post office blows up and the police think Merry planted the bomb. Swede’s life starts to crumble all around him and he tries his hardest to make sense of the shocking change around him.
The good thing about American Pastoral is, that adapting it to film, allows for a plethora of possibilities for interpretation and expansion of Roth’s narrative. Unfortunately, McGregor and Romano take the most pedestrian route possible to create an odd, yet boring film. The whole film feels like a missed opportunity to explore the psyche of what once was the ideal American life and how (or why) it crumbled so dramatically during the 1960s. Instead, it feels like an unfinished character study that occasionally mimics David Lynch. The character of Swede doesn’t have much of an arc outside of finally letting his daughter go, even though he’s spent 75% of the movie trying to find her and he gets a mere two scenes with her to close the story. The rest of the film features Swede dealing with race riots and Dawn losing her mind while he tries to keep his hair coiffed. McGregor is in no way a bad director, as he successfully captures the dream-like sheen of the 60s American and the increasing dread that’s closing in on Swede. The problem is that Romano’s script only goes skin deep and never tries to expand or try to tell the story in a new way, let alone an interesting way.
McGregor’s double duty must have left him a bit distracted, because his acting feels off. He never feels fully invested in critical dramatic moments and usually just reverts back to Swedes good ole’ boy charm. Again, it might be another victim of the script, but McGregor doesn’t feel developed enough by the time the movie is over. Fortunately, American Pastoral belongs to its leading ladies Connelly and Fanning, both giving intense and invested performances. Both start and end at the opposite end of each character’s spectrum, with Connelly starting as the delicate natural flower and ending as the plastic sour queen of the suburbs. Connelly deserved more screen time to showcase her cold intensity and sharp barbs against the failure of Dawn’s life. Fanning starts off as this ticking time bomb of youthful rebellion hidden behind a crippling stutter and she throws icy jabs at her cozy life. But by the film’s end, her scarred face and crumbled environment is a mere casualty of the chaos, and she’s so broken and fragile that she could float away in the wind. Fanning makes both versions work, keeping a fire in her eyes while never overdoing the rebellious angst.
American Pastoral is a confusing failure of a movie, but not baffling enough to warrant a recommendation. This shouldn’t be an issue of McGregor to stay away from behind the camera, merely just for him to remove himself a little bit from the front. If he wants to direct another movie, he should fully immerse himself in that mindset. This can lead to trying new things, experimenting with your material, and even looking at the story from a different angle. American Pastoral feels like an obligation for McGregor to do for a studio more than a confident step in a new field.