The title of Philip Roth’s seething 1997 novel, “American Pastoral,” is barbed. It’s a book about how the American dream morphed into a nightmare in the decades following World War II. It’s an overarchingly ambitious work that, in recounting the tragedy of a seemingly picture-perfect family, attempts to corral all the political, social, and racial conflicts that were tearing the United States apart.
It should come as no surprise, I suppose, that the movie that has been made from Roth’s novel, starring and directed by Ewan McGregor and adapted by John Romano, is insufficient. There is simply too much ground to cover. To make matters worse, a lot of that ground was novelistically rendered by Roth in ways that don’t translate well to film. Interior psychological states, delivered as narrative, are the book’s bloodstream.
But even allowing for these impediments, why did the film have to be so bland? It’s as if a swirling oil painting had been turned into a paint-by-numbers tableau. The film is a dutiful attempt to convey some of the vehemence of the novel – of the counterculture of the 1960s and early ’70s especially – but McGregor, making his directorial debut, lacks the temperament to do this era justice. He’s an innocent bystander in the melee.
The film takes as its hero Seymour Levov (McGregor), a high school football champion with charismatic good looks. Seymour is known by everyone in the largely Jewish community of Weequahic, N.J., as “Swede.” After a stint in the Marines, he marries Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), an Irish-Catholic Miss New Jersey; moves to a moneyed, rural New Jersey enclave; and takes over the family glovemaking business in Newark, N.J., where the majority of its long-term workforce is black. Their only child, Merry (played as a young adult by Dakota Fanning), has a severe stutter, and, growing up, a fixation on Audrey Hepburn, that icon of feminine grace.
By 16, Merry has become something of a horror – a homegrown Vietnam-era “revolutionary” in the Weather Underground who mercilessly chastises her parents’ bourgeois hypocrisies and steals into New York at every opportunity to congregate with her cabal of fellow radicals. Forbidden to do so anymore by Swede, she takes the war home, bombing a local post office/general store and killing its beloved proprietor in the process. When Merry disappears underground, Swede refuses to accept her guilt and wears down his life seeking her whereabouts.
The film’s problems begin with its central piece of miscasting. McGregor, a capable actor, does not have the shimmering charisma that the role calls for. (Ideal casting would have been the youngish Paul Newman, or, nowadays, perhaps Liev Schreiber.) Swede’s downfall is intended as a stand-in for the postwar collapse of American pastoralism. His tragedy is the country’s. For this heavy-duty symbolism to work – and Roth overplays the symbolism in the novel – Swede needs to be larger than life. He’s a demi-diety brought low by atrocious circumstance.
There’s a residual poignancy in the way Swede denies his daughter’s guilt until, years later, he finds her in dire straits, aided by the suspect assistance of a fellow “revolutionary” (Valorie Curry) who functions for him as a kind of taunter-stalker. But because Swede is such a tediously suffering lump, our attention inevitably shifts to Merry, who, as Fanning plays her, at least has some fire. She jolts the screen.
The film offers up periodic newsreel bulletins of the turmoil of the times – Vietnam, Watergate, the Newark race riots – but these serve only to highlight the film’s otherwise anemic attitude. With the exception of Fanning, and Peter Riegert, who provides some comic oomph as Swede’s loudmouth father, the actors all seem frozen in place by the movie’s sloggy, mournful pacing. Connelly’s Dawn, who, unlike her husband, wants only to blot out the past, should be far more poignant than she is here. Even the usually reliable David Strathairn – who, in a small role, plays Nathan Zuckerman, the Roth surrogate and narrator who sets in motion from a high school reunion the film’s flashback structure – seems afflicted by an overdose of somberness.
The entire film seems afflicted in this way. This was also true of the novel, which heaped horror upon horror. Sophisticated as Roth is, he’s obsessed by the startling revelation that American life isn’t like a Norman Rockwell painting. He can’t conceive of any genuine transcendence in the American dream, and the film, with its punishing catalog of woes, duplicates that dubious, insubstantial mind-set. It’s a grueling movie, and a thin one. Grade: C+ (Rated R for some strong sexual material, language, and brief violent images.)