American Pastoral (2016) Review: A Defective Direction with Good Intentions

Scottish actor Ewan McGregor must have been the third love of my life by all means: I loved him in Trainspotting, fell for his sentimental serenades in Moulin Rouge and found great pleasure in watching him take roles on a rather wider spectrum spanning through the Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi to a tsunami survivor family man. He couldn’t stay afloat this time, though. His directional debut was not a complete failure, I wouldn’t want to accuse him with deliberately neglecting some things here and there, but he did seem to have bitten off more of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel than he could possibly chew.

There are certain books and characters that one can’t fully understand unless they come from the same environment – not just mentally, but more physically so. In the case of American Pastoral, having a Scottish director who also plays the role of Seymour “The Swede” Levov, an American Jew living the middleclass life in Newark, New Jersey, feels somewhat misplaced, a bit confusing even. However fine most of the performances are, it feels like McGregor’s hands were shaking while conducting his orchestra throughout the whole movie. It is usually said, that the better the book is, the worse the movie will be: Philip Roth’s more than 400 page-long novel could not be squeezed into 108 minutes without causing serious harm to the original story.

We follow the steps of a troubled daughter who joins a radical political group and gets involved in the bombing of a post office that kills a local man, resulting in the Levovs family tragedy. There are a few strong scenes indeed, for me there had been three in number: when the messenger of the daughter, Merry Levov tries to seduce The Swede in a hotel room, when Dawn, the wife played by Jennifer Connelly, sits on her bed in a madhouse, blaming his heart-broken husband for everything they had to go through, and when in an act of despair, the father discovers the bruises and rotting teeth of long escaped and sought after daughter, portrayed by Dakota Fanning. There was definitely more to see, but besides delivering the sense of having a deeper meaning to the debacle of the values and relationships, the movie does not suffice. As the classic American dream completely falls into pieces, despite of a solid screenplay and the steady performances of all three main characters, McGregor’s interpretation only manages to scrape the surface of Roth’s vision.

A couple of bad choices also injured the core – or what could have been the core – of this film: I couldn’t understand why Ewan McGregor insisted on keeping the whole narrative when adapting it to the screen simply doesn’t make any sense? In the book, the writer’s alter ego meets Levov’s brother on their 45th high school reunion, that’s how he hears about the sad life and death of once ideal high school athlete know by many as The Swede. The movie’s few brief scenes depicting this reunion feel out of context, it takes up several precious moments that could have been used much more wisely.

Adapting such novel as the American Pastoral would have been a great burden to a more experienced director as well, let alone what it must have been for an entrant of the field. I believe that Mr. McGregor didn’t make the right choice when he decided to pick this story for his directional debut. Therefore, however appreciative they were, all his hard work and goodwill became fruitless.