Release Date: October 28, 2016
Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Ewan McGregor
Cast: Ewan McGregor; Jennifer Connelly; Dakota Fanning; David Straithairn; Peter Riegert; Molly Parker; Uzo Aduba; Rupert Evans
An “A” for effort for Ewan McGregor in his directorial debut. Boasting an impressive cast including McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, David Straithairn and Peter Riegert, “American Pastoral” wants to be a heartbreaking story of a family torn apart by the social and political upheaval of the ‘60s. After a strong start, however, the film settles into clichéd melodrama that grows sillier the longer it goes on.
McGregor plays Seymour “Swede” Levov, the golden boy of Newark, New Jersey. Swede’s got looks, athletic prowess, and charisma to spare. He’s even got a beauty queen girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) whom he ends up marrying and whisking away to the rural township of Old Rimrock. Shortly afterward, Meredith “Merry” Levov is born, an angelic child who unfortunately carries a devastating stutter. Nevertheless, Merry is the apple of her parents’ eyes and they give her as much love and support as any unconditionally loving parent would. As Merry grows up into Dakota Fanning, however, the social mores of the times seep their way into Merry’s head and she begins to hang around with a radical crowd, eventually taking part in a bombing that leaves one man dead. From that point on, there is no turning back for Merry and the Levov’s have essentially lost their daughter. Swede, ever the devoted father, never gives up, never stops searching, and never stops loving his little girl.
Adapting Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the screen is no easy feat for a debuting director. McGregor tries his best and obviously cares very much about the material and his approach to the story, but it just never takes flight. The direction is rather flat and pedestrian, in a TV movie sort of way, and McGregor doesn’t show much in the way of visual flair. The performances he coaxes from his actors tend to be overcooked at best and amateurish at worst. Connelly fares best since she’s given the broadest character arch to work with. Fanning is good too, but she really doesn’t log enough screen time to really blow us away (though her later scenes are affecting). McGregor cares almost too much and you can almost sense him “seriously ahcting” in a “big, important drama movie.” The effect is probably the opposite of what was intended and ends up being a distraction. The rest of the cast, while working with what they’re given (admittedly, not much, since the script by John Romano does no one any favors), doesn’t leave much of an impression.
Where the movie does excel is in the ancillary areas: production design, location, costumes, etc. Designer Daniel B. Clancy and set decorator Julie Smith get nice mileage out of the Pennsylvania locations and costumer Lindsay McKay makes a substantial contribution to the film’s evocation of the ‘60s time and place. Production credits all around are professional and classy.
It’s just that the movie itself gets swallowed up by it’s own self-seriousness. Beginning strongly with a framing device featuring David Straithairn (we don’t see enough of him these days), the film starts to go downhill as soon as Merry enters her teen years (about one-third of the way through). The cultural humor touched upon in the early going between Swede’s Jewish upbringing (nicely brought to life by Peter Riegert) and Connelly’s shiksha goddessness is gone and we are barely given a break from the social and political chaos of the period. No new narrative ground is broken here and you can almost forecast the story beats in the later third. “American Pastoral” is like one of those school plays where everyone just loves each other to bits behind-the-scenes, stands and claps in support of each other, and gives each other big hugs at the end of the day. Regrettably, those qualities of an acting ensemble, while admirable, don’t necessarily translate into particularly riveting filmmaking.