It was adapted from the Pulitzer winning book of the same name, which was written by Phillip Roth, but the “American Pastoral” film version is lacking in substance and gratitude and it does not follow the book’s narrative in any sort of coherent fashion. While the actors Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning are all names in their own right, together they are not able to give this movie the through-line and essence it needs for the thought provoking piece it had the potential to showcase.
This is McGregor’s directorial debut and in the film he portrays the lead character, Seymour “Swede” Levov. Swede is a Jewish high school athletic legend who marries a Gentile who was a former beauty queen named Dawn, played by Connelly. Swede also inherits his father’s glove business and we see the couple have a nice and easy life.
The film takes us down the path of his perfect life and he has one child with Dawn who the couple name Merry, played by Fanning. Merry we find out early on has a strong stutter, this seemingly because of her mother’s beauty queen status. The film never really explains that, but there are indeed problems in the family dynamics, however the film never lets us in on the how or why. Eventually Merry becomes a revolutionary committing a deadly act of political terrorism during the Vietnam War in the family’s small, pastoral town.
Fanning’s character then runs away from the small town and after that a good portion of the film becomes Swede looking for his daughter. He finally finds her in body, but never gets her back in spirit. Connelly’s character moves on with her life after having a nervous breakdown. After Dawn’s breakdown Swede still continues his lifelong search to find his daughter and due to this the marriage is never the same.
Another clunky piece of screenwriting is the way the story is being told, by Swede’s brother to a friend at a high school reunion on the very same weekend as Swede’s untimely funeral. We never understand exactly why the daily life of Swede went so wrong and why the daughter felt such a need to rebel. The viewer is never able to get inside any one of the character’s heads in order to come away with the compassion needed to understand the telling of this story. McGregor does a good job in this freshman project as a director, but his acting is too buttoned up – especially playing a father during the turbulent 1960s.
When Swede does finally manage to find Merry, in a low-rent part of town seemingly paying for her sins by living in a hovel he is devastated. He is also devastated when he discovers his wife is having an affair. He could have married a Jewish woman, he could have gone pro with his athletic career versus taking over his father’s business, all this to set up he is a good and honorable man. Rightly so, but at the expense of this man’s life and we never really understand Swede’s ongoing need for righteousness as we watch it unfold during “American Pastoral.”
1.5 out of 5 stars