One of the most perceptive novels of the 20th century becomes one of the most ill-conceived movies of the 21st as Ewan McGregor tries his hand at directing with this ruinously streamlined adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1997 masterpiece, “American Pastoral.” It’s a disaster, but could it really have been anything else?
Roth’s writing is notoriously difficult to capture on camera, even for filmmakers with years of experience. James Schamus knocked it out of the park with “Indignation” earlier this year, but the former head of Focus Features spent decades shepherding (and writing) stories of similar sensitivity, and learned to recognize why certain texts might be — or might not be — suited for the screen.
However, anyone who believed it was a good idea to adapt “American Pastoral” doesn’t share the same intuition. All of Roth’s prose is dense and deeply internal, but this reflective, intricately framed opus about the false assumptions that accrue in the American dream might as well be Roth’s “Tristram Shandy.” It may not be unadaptable, but McGregor’s reductive take on the material suggests he wasn’t the guy to do it.
That said, it’s easy to understand why he tried. The actor was itching to portray protagonist Seymour “Swede” Levov, and — after the project spent years in the purgatory of development — it was clear that the only way to get the thing funded would be if he made it himself. His passion is commendable, and his casting is right on the money.
The pride of post-war Newark, Swede was a fair-haired high school sports star whose prom-king popularity helped lift and integrate his entire tribe into the firmaments of white goy society. He was a local god, a creature so perfect that an offhand comment from him could resonate with the object of his attention for the rest of their lives. That’s exactly what happened to Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), an acclaimed novelist, part-time narrator, and life-long Swede obsessive. But when the quiet writer returns to Newark for the 45th reunion of his high school class, eager to hear stories about the glory that Swede went on to achieve, he’s confronted by a very different reality: Swede is dead, and his life was shit.
And so we are spirited away into the uninterrupted flashback that consumes the rest of the film, to an America where seeing was still believing, life appeared to make sense, and people assumed that society got things right. Swede Levov was newly married to Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), and the perfect couple — along with their angelic daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) — lived an idyllic life in the rolling farmlands of Old Rimrock, New Jersey.
The idyll that begins to crack when Merry develops a severe stutter, fissures during the domestic social unrest that anticipates Vietnam, and cracks when a bomb explodes at the local gas station — and Merry’s accused of lighting the fuse. Swede, who once walked on water like Don Draper with a conscience, is left scrambling to reassemble a feeling of innocence that may never have existed in the first place.
Screenwriter John Romano has the quixotic and singularly unenviable job of adapting this work, but he doesn’t tilt at windmills so much as lean toward them. “American Pastoral” is a novel that would need radical reworking to function as a feature-length film (a limited-run miniseries might have been interesting), but Romano plays it safe, albeit selectively so.
His fidelity to the source material is asphyxiating, the script mimicking the form of Roth’s text while forsaking its flow — the Zuckerman framing device, a crucial lens that ultimately is meant to reveal itself as a mirror, is so tacked on that it muddies the relationship between the life Swede led and the one that society may have anticipated for him. The author accelerated a century of American disillusionment to find some profound conclusions (“That’s how we know we’re alive; we’re wrong”), but these particles of truth are sprinkled over the film like sound effects.
Ultimately, Romano decided to reimagine “American Pastoral” as a story that’s strictly about a father’s undying love for his daughter. In a book that’s streaked with ideas like a loom strung with yarn, the relationship between Swede and Merry is surely the easiest thread to dramatize. But there’s a reason why the novel isn’t found in the mystery section: Merry’s disappearance doesn’t matter nearly so much as Swede’s unerring certainty that he can find her, and the life he sacrifices in order to do it.
McGregor hides behind a furrowed mask of incredulity (his face is constantly screwed into an expression that suggests a “Pleasantville” resident who’s trying to make sense of color), and the film is far too concerned with Swede’s wild-goose chase to confront the implications of its failure. Swede is meant to feel lost and lonely, but he comes across as stupid and deserving of his fate.
As a director, McGregor is competent but uncreative, overcompensating for his flaws. His compositions lack expression, so the actors scream their message. His camera lacks subtlety, so he makes sure to get the window-dressing right.
Still, the bits that transcend the plot perversely serve to underscore the failure of the movie’s narrow approach. Newcomer Valorie Curry is slippery and seductive as the young revolutionary who serves as liaison between Swede and his missing daughter, but her character — so interesting that you wish Swede would just adopt her and call it a day — is squeezed of her purpose until she’s left with nothing but her sex appeal. That tends to be how it goes with Roth’s female characters, but Fanning and Connelly bear the worst of it, reduced to pod people whose bodies are eventually contorted into sources of Swede’s misery. Peter Riegert steals the show as Swede’s father; he’s the only cast member who seems to understand that some of this is supposed to be funny.
The closer Swede gets to finding his daughter, the further the film recedes from understanding what he’s trying to find. As it stumbles towards its hero’s decline, unraveling his problems faster than McGregor can dramatize what they are, “American Pastoral” increasingly feels like skimming the CliffsNotes of a book you’ve never read (and may never want to). By the time it ends in a sludge of bad old-age makeup and empty epiphanies, this movie has misunderstood its characters as fatally as they have misunderstood each other.
“American Pastoral” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Lionsgate will release the film in theaters on October 21.