Ewan McGregor has not been successful in adapting Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel, revolving around a father’s disillusionment with the American Dream when his daughter becomes a terrorist during the social and political turmoil of the late 1960s. But it’s not for lack of trying. Awkwardly bookended by novelist Nathan Zuckerman’s (David Strathairn) visit to his 45th high-school reunion, it’s the story of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov (McGregor), a Jewish ‘golden boy’ and star athlete, who marries Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), an Irish-Catholic beauty queen, and settles into a seemingly bucolic life on a farm in Old Rimrock, a WASPy western New Jersey township. Read on…
Having inherited his father’s glove factory in Newark, Swede is an avowed liberal, employing a work force that is 80% black.
So it’s somewhat inexplicable when his rebellious, Vietnam War-protesting, 16 year-old daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) becomes radicalized, bombing the local post-office/gas station and killing its proprietor before joining the Weather Underground and disappearing for many years.
Long after his wife’s nervous breakdown, stoic Swede continues to search for Merry, which is why he responds to a mysterious visit from seductive Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry), who claims to have information about her whereabouts.
Nathan Zuckerman is obviously Philip Roth’s alter-ego, and the story is narrated by Swede’s younger brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans). In literature, “pastoral” denotes a rustic technique of reducing life’s complexities into artificial simplicity.
But what screenwriter John Romano and director MacGregor fail to grasp is Roth’s acerbic humor and sarcasm, so the result is shallow and superficial. Historically, Roth’s novels have been difficult to adapt for the screen since they’re so introspective.
It was folly for Ewan McGregor to star in his directorial debut; he needed that ‘third eye’ to guide his choices, including casting the leading man. And his depiction of the Newark riots is woefully inadequate.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Pastoral” is a florid, flawed 5, compressed into tawdry melodrama.