To say American Pastoral is a misfire or misguided is an understatement.
The fact is that nearly all adaptations of the works of Philip Roth are going to miss the mark is simply a fact of the universe. Death, taxes, and the fact that Roth novels are all about perspective and prose. Any adaptation removes Roth from the equation which removes 90% of what works about his writing.
Would that be enough to damn an adaptation? Not necessarily. If the director was skilled enough to navigate the waters around that, or create their own compelling interpretation of the worlds within Roth’s work, we might have something. Unfortunately, we don’t.
God love Ewan McGregor, but this was almost too much for a first time director. Putting an actor on a major prestige picture with minimal/no prior directing experience is like taking someone from an indie to a blockbuster (oh wait). No matter what they know, they don’t know enough to pull off what’s being asked of them.
American Pastoral is a difficult work as is, and the inexperience of McGregor as a director means he doesn’t have the tools to actually figure out how to make this thing pop. But popping is the least of its concerns as a bad idea in inexperienced hands has ended up largely as a bland, cringe-worthy thing, a collection of artificial moments populated by automatons dressed in what one imagines the 60s to be like from fashion magazines and YouTube clips.
American Pastoral is the tale of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a Jewish man from New Jersey with a seemingly perfect life. He has a beauty queen wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), a job running his family factory, and a precocious daughter, Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning).
However, Merry grows up and she becomes radicalized, believing in the necessity of revolution and taking political action against the Vietnam War and with the rising tide of change in the country. This leads to an act with disrupts Swede’s perfect life and sends him crashing into the changing tides of American history.
This is all told in frame story, as Swede’s brother Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans) tells the story to his old high-school friend Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), Roth’s in-story alter ego. This is the movie’s first major mistake.
Look, the most foolish thing any movie could do, especially one based on a book so renowned for its prose style, is directly invite comparisons. The Great Gatbsy made that mistake and American Pastoral makes it with much less grace than even that one did.
Now, I’ll grant you that the frame story was a part of the original, but in the original, the frame story was a part of the telling, a part of the narrative. This is so fatally tacked on, one simply wonders if the studio owed Strathairn some money. There’s no purpose, no mirror, and therefore no justification in the film’s text. Screenwriter John Romano is attempting to get the form of American Pastoral without Roth’s ability to keep it moving.
All that would be fine if the story that was being framed worked. But it doesn’t. It simply, fundamentally, on no level works at all. Much of that isn’t on the script work, which chose to pull the strand of Swede and Merry’s relationship as its main dramatic throughline. Which I get, but misses the book’s point. You gotta do what gotta do I suppose.
Rather, the story doesn’t work precisely because of what I discussed in relation to the film American Honey. When you purport to be an American _______ story, you are purporting to say something about America and what it is. You are pulling the details and stories of this country to say something larger. You are getting real with us about this country.
As a film, American Pastoral has nothing real. Its period details are absolutely artificial, plasticky and nostalgia-filtered. Every appropriate needle drop is on the nose, most fatally in the use of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” a song now more associated with 60s cliche than with actual 60s history. It’s a staging, not a recreation.
But perhaps worst of all are its characters. One of the benefits of actors-turned-directors is that they often have a unique understanding of what makes actors work well on film, and their character work can often turn in powerful performances.
However, we start at the problem that American Pastoral has little conception of its characters. Swede, Merry, Dawn. All of these people are names and concepts, not even archetypes, more often stereotypes. We get no insight into what makes them tick, the desires and their wants. There’s no ideas about them, they’re just pretty people who move through the motions of the story like a “TIME TRAVEL THROUGH THE 60s” automated theme park ride.
Yet despite those conceptions, American Pastoral seems so focused on actorly moments. Big, loud moments that are about showing off the skill of the actors. You know the sort. Yelling and screaming and crying and moments that you can’t believe they were brave enough to do. It’s a whole lot of sound and fury, but with no character behind it, it signifies nothing.
I want to like this, I really do. American Pastoral has a special place in my psyche and I wish all the best for Ewan McGregor. But there’s nothing here. Just moving through the motions of a story that’s so much more special than that. The briefest flashes of what might have worked in this story without Roth only make it all the more painful.
American Pastoral is a bad idea, executed poorly, and shoved under the rug in the hopes that no one will remember it come time for everyone to try to move past it.