Film Review – American Pastoral
Pulitzer prize-winning novel, American Pastoral, by Philip Roth became the film adaptation that Ewan McGregor chose as his directorial debut.
Set in post-WWII New Jersey and later the 1960s, the story is of Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor), the All-American favorite of his hometown. He is the popular, good-looking, can-do-no-wrong kid that we all can identify as one person from our high school years. The Swede (which he is referred to by many) went off to war, came back and married the beautiful, former Miss New Jersey, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). Working for his father and eventually taking over the leather glove business for him, the Swede carves out an idyllic life for his family in Rimrock, New Jersey. Everything is going for this guy and his beautiful wife until the birth of their only child, Merry (Younger Merry is Ocean James, Older Merry is Dakota Fanning). Plagued by a stutter, Merry grows up surrounded by privilege and opportunity, only to develop some peculiarities and extreme ideas. She becomes an unknown to her parents, utterly confused as to who their daughter has become.
The film sets itself up as a story, one told to a writer, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), who meets his old friend Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans) at their high school reunion. It is through Jerry telling the story of his older brother and Nathan occasionally narrating it, that we are led through the Swede’s adult life with the ending already determined. He is dead.
Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly make a pretty couple, and this is the point. Seeing the CG effects to make them look younger in the beginning is a treat, and then you realize how good they look without the effects and life isn’t fair. Both actors played their characters as ones not expecting of privilege, they just happen to have it. The Swede is successful because of his inherited business and Dawn is the beautiful wife with a few cows at home to keep her busy. There is nothing to dislike about them, and I can see other versions maybe playing them as people the audience is not so fond of. Both take their characters off of their charted course with the disappearance of their daughter. Ewan keeps his Swede focused, calm, but with a panic and desperation just under his skin. On the other hand, Jennifer has Dawn loving her daughter, but simply can’t take any more of the questions and uncertainty. It breaks her.
While the film focuses on Dakota Fanning’s portrayal of Merry, it is begun by Ocean James’ younger Merry. It is in Ocean’s Merry that we see that she is a bit odd and has some puzzling ideas on love. Dakota takes Merry off the deep end, becoming a patsy to radicals that protest the Vietnam War. She is consumed with the politics, the ideas, and is not too thrilled with her place in the world. She seemingly hates her parents for all that they have given to her, and takes the most extreme act to show her defiance. Dakota’s Merry reappears in the last third of the film and not wanting to spoil the film, I will just say that is gets really weird.
Having not read the American Pastoral, I cannot say if this is a true adaptation to an award-winning novel. I would hope it is more entertaining and satisfying than the film adaptation so carefully chosen by Ewan McGregor. It certainly has a theme that people can identify with today based on where we are in the world in combat as well as fighting for our beliefs in this political climate, pre-Presidential election. It, unfortunately, is more quizzical than it should be. Is there some deep meaning to Merry’s downturn and disappearance? It is certainly enough to turn her family upside down, but the Swede keeps his headstrong and steadfast way about him through it all. In a way he failed, but he never gave up. He lost many things, things he thought could not or would not happen to him. American Pastoral has a few messages in its 126 minutes, but it does not keep you interested enough. You just want to get to the end, the conclusion that should be a pay-off for watching it. The final minutes are the best of film, but you have to wait through a family’s struggle with changing times and a willful daughter.