Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut “American Pastoral,” an adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-wining 1997 novel, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival yesterday to mostly negative reviews. The film follows Seymour “Swede” Levov (played by McGregor), a former high school athlete and successful businessman whose family falls apart amidst the turmoil of the 1960s. Critics have described the film as yet another ill-advised Roth adaptation and more proof that the writer’s work doesn’t translate well to the screen, save for James Schamus’ “Indignation” released earlier this year.
IndieWire’s own David Ehrlich describes “American Pastoral” as a “disaster,” calling McGregor’s direction “competent but uncreative,” and his fidelity to Roth’s text “asphyxiating:”
“As it stumbles towards its hero’s decline… ‘American Pastoral’ increasingly feels like skimming the CliffsNotes of a book you’ve never read,” Ehrlich continues. “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.”
Variety’s Andrew Barker says the film is “as flat and strangled as Philip Roth’s novel is furious and expansive,” and while McGregor has “obvious admiration” for the source material, “the beating heart of the book [slips] further and further from his grasp with every scene.” He also says that McGregor was miscast as the protagonist Swede.
“In the novel, Swede is a figure of immense tragic irony — a Greatest Generation Newark Jew who successfully passes as an upper-class North Atlantic WASP, only for the transition to destroy him in ways he never could have predicted, when the ‘indigenous American berserk’ of the late 1960s turns all of his accomplishments into indictments, his humanist liberalism into weakness. Yet McGregor’s Swede feels neither fish nor fowl, a bland everyman who’s neither recognizably Semitic nor recognizably all-American, and this fundamental miscasting sets the tone for the rest of the film.”
The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman argues that “American Pastoral” is a “dud, but there are a few grace notes that save it from being an unmitigated disaster.” He says the film excels when it illustrates how “well-meaning liberals react in the face of potential revolution” and that McGregor was wise to let the many signifiers stay in the background, the problem being that the foreground is “so dull.”
Not everyone found the film to be disastrous. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy describes it as a “mixed bag” and that the film serves up “any number of engagingly dramatic scenes, but anything resembling the complexity and depth of the novel are certainly missing.”
Finally, The Wrap’s Steve Pond claims McGregor takes “an admirable crack” at the source material: “The film looks great, the performances are fine and it has plenty of moments that sing.”
“American Pastoral” opens in limited release on October 21st followed by a wide release on October 28th.