For all of its anger and passion and political and racial outrage, for its seething study of an American family that’s coming apart at the seams, “American Pastoral” is, against odds, an unusually flat affair.
There’s an intriguing story in the screen adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel, and some strong acting, but those attributes are accompanied by an almost overwhelming earnestness, as well as some other acting that falls short of its mark.
The film has a great beginning, one that will draw viewers in and get them engaged with the characters. It’s told, in flashback, from the viewpoint of one of Roth’s regular protagonists, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), who bumps into old acquaintance Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans) at their 45th high school reunion. The only thing they really had in common was that Jerry’s older brother, Seymour AKA The Swede, was the most popular kid at school, winner of sports awards and everyone’s admiration, including that of Nathan. But Jerry is only in town for The Swede’s funeral; the reunion was an afterthought.
And so begins Jerry’s telling of “the big story” about The Swede to Nathan, as does the flashback to late-1960s New Jersey.
The Swede (Ewan McGregor, making his directing debut) was the Jewish guy who married the gentile beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), against the wishes of his religious and hard-headed father (Peter Riegert). They have a daughter named Merry, and when his dad retires, The Swede takes over running the family glove making company. The Swede, unlike his bullying dad, is a totally decent fellow, who’s good to his workers, and treats everyone — black and white — with dignity and respect. His office manager is Vicky (Uzo Aduba), an outspoken black woman in whom The Swede puts all of his trust.
It’s at home that things begin to go wrong. At a young age, Merry (Ocean James) develops a bad stutter, which a psychiatrist tells her parents might just be a way of getting attention. It later becomes clear, without a clear reason, that there’s a loving relationship between daughter and dad, but a tense one between daughter and mom. When she’s 16, and becoming aware of political unrest over the war in Vietnam and racial problems throughout America, Merry (now Dakota Fanning) takes it all out on her mother, via much shouting and cursing, all still through that stutter.
Then the film’s problems flare. Dakota Fanning is good in quiet, dramatic roles, but isn’t at her best when going unhinged. She overplayed that approach a decade ago when she screeched her way through “War of the Worlds” and she overdoes it, to shrill extremes, this time. McGregor is saddled with a difficult task of playing a man who can’t figure out what to do or where to turn when his daughter, possibly the person behind a politically motivated bombing, disappears, then his wife starts to fall into mental instability. But he goes at the part too solemnly. You want to root for him, but it’s hard getting past just feeling sad for him.
The introduction of the mysterious Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) perks things up, before turning the character into a cliche, then, astoundingly, evolving into the film’s best performance. Lots of questions are presented, and most are answered with the reappearance of the markedly changed Merry near the end, shortly before its mood unnervingly shifts from one of partial relief to emotional rawness.
This is a heartrending story that winds down with a feeling of emptiness. It carries some sobering messages about people dealing with people, and it sure doesn’t make for a fun viewing experience. Still, there’s some good moviemaking here; whatever film McGregor tries next should be worth checking out.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by John Romano; directed by Ewan McGregor
With Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Uzo Aduba, Peter Riegert, David Strathairn