Seymour “The Swede” Levov was an all-star athlete in his Newark, New Jersey high school and owns a successful glove making business. He has a beautiful wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and a pretty young daughter, Merry (Hannah Nordberg), and a lovely home. But, the Vietnam War intrudes into his way of life when older Merry (Dakota Fanning), who stutters, becomes radicalized against the government and the War, bringing tragedy to the Levov family in “American Pastoral.”
Ewan McGregor takes the helm of a film for the first time in this adaptation, by John Romano, of Philip Roth’s 1997 Pulitzer-prize winning novel by the same name. The story spans the decade of the 1960s and into the 70s, beginning with the infamous self-immolation of a Buddhist monk at a busy intersection in Saigon in 1963. This event, which young Merry watches before her parents can turn off the TV, plants the seeds of her future radicalism.
As the War escalates, Merry becomes increasingly anti-government and anti-war. Then, when she was 16 years old, the small post office in the Levov family’s sleepy little New Jersey town of Rim Rock is bombed, killing the postmaster. The bombing of the federal building brings the FBI into the investigation, with the now-missing Merry a prime suspect. She disappears without a trace.
This is where “American Pastoral” takes its focus as the Swede desperately searches for clues on Merry’s whereabouts, against the advice of the FBI agent on the case. With the help of a mysterious woman, Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry), Seymour finally locates his daughter but is unprepared for what he finds and learns about Merry. Meanwhile, Dawn, as the years tick by, becomes increasingly withdrawn and obsessed about her waning beauty.
The screenplay feels like a condensed adaptation as there are gaps in the narrative and events unexplained. For instance, Seymour is locally renowned as a sports hero, making the impression that the Swede is a physically imposing figure. Ewan McGregor, while a talented actor, is not a physically imposing figure, diminishing the potential impact of his character.
Acting is solid, though stilted by the script, with Jennifer Connelly, as Dawn Levov, a woman who, early in the film, is outwardly happy with her life raising cows. But, Merry’s increasing rebelliousness, the post office bombing and her daughter’s sudden disappearance drive Dawn to the brink, which Seymour is powerless to stop. Dakota Fanning, as older Merry, is a tragic figure who may or may not have been manipulated by others.
“American Pastoral” is an earnest first effort, but the source material may have been a bit too much for a director’s debut. I give it a C.
Writer Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) was in awe of his childhood friend's older brother, Seymour 'Swede' Levov (Ewan McGregor), their Newark, NJ high school's humble all American athlete. But when he unexpectedly runs into Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans, "Agora," "The Boy") at their 45th High School reunion, he learns the Florida surgeon is only there to attend his brother's funeral and Nathan learns that life was far from perfect in the Swede's "American Pastoral."
In adapting Philip Roth's Pulitizer prize winning novel about the turbulent 60's upending of post war American bliss, "The Lincoln Lawyer" screenwriter John Romano and first time director Ewan McGregor haven't even delivered a Cliff Notes version. If you haven't read the book, you'll probably find the story, as told here, odd, a series of important events proffered with no subtext and little background. If you have, you'll be sorely disappointed, beginning with the confounding casting of McGregor, who was attached to the project before signing on to helm it.
Roth's novel is about a famous writer's total misreading of the life of a much admired idol. Its central theme about a father's love for a daughter who becomes violently radicalized is certainly relevant in today's times of home grown terrorism. But it's also about such ideas as complacency versus action and how being a 'good person' may not be enough. It's about minorities assimilating into Wasp culture. It is about the loss of American craftsmanship and manufacturing in a global economy. It is a journey through the tortured mind of 'the Swede,' a man who loves his family and his work only to face betrayals and rejection. Of these, about the only thing McGregor and Romano retain other than the most obvious is the differing responses to grief as seen in Seymour and his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and the only character who comes across as a real person is the Swede's office manager at his Newark Maid glove factory, Vicky (Uzo Aduba, "Tallulah," TV's 'Orange Is the New Black').
One must give McGregor some credit for even attempting to shepherd this complex work to the screen. The production itself is fine, our first sight of the Swede his return home to the wealthy rural Old Rimrock, bounding out his back door to be greeted by acres of land, his wife and young daughter Merry (Ocean James at 8, Hannah Nordberg at 12, Dakota Fanning at 16) on the horizon, leading their prize bull back to the barn, the very picture of bucolic contentment. Urban scenes in Newark contrast the old ways to Seymour's new life.
But Romano's linear rearrangement of Roth's book dispenses with shading, leaving only the hard lines of black and white (inexplicably, a moment which haunts the Swede in his attempt at rationalizing his daughter's actions has been turned on its head when it could have just as easily been omitted). The character of Jerry, the Swede's unfavored brother, has been relegated to flashback introducer, just as the character of Dr. Sheila Smith (Molly Parker), Merry's speech therapist (and much, much more, never gone into here) is given one scene. McGregor is unimaginable as a hulking, all American Jewish sports star and his interpretation of the character is bland happiness and anguished reaction. The film also stars "Local Hero's" Peter Riegert as strong-willed patriarch Lou Levov and "Blair Witch's" Valorie Curry as the mysterious Rita Cohen, Seymour's stonewalling link to his fugitive daughter.
'American Pastoral' the novel is a primal scream. "American Pastoral" the movie is a whimper.
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