AMERICAN PASTORAL (USA 2016) ***
Directed by Ewan McGregor
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning
Review by Gilbert Seah
As Seymour’s story is told from the points of view of Zuckerman’s recollections and his brother Jerry’s disclosure, two sides of the life story of a hero is portrayed. Seymour (Ewan McGregor) is the all-American hero but something went terribly wrong in his daily life. The trouble with the film is that it does not pin down exactly when this happens or the real deep reason why.
Ewan McGregor makes his directing debut and stars alongside Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning in this ambitious adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, about a “perfect” American family that is torn apart by the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. One must give the actor credit for choosing such a dauntless task as a adapting a Roth novel for his directorial debut.
The film is framed by a high school reunion in which 60-year olds Zuckerman (David Strathairn) and the brother (Rupert Evans) meet. They discuss the life of Seymour (the Swede) as the film unfolds with the details. The reason for this form of storytelling becomes clear at the end of the film and serves as Roth’s message, which will not be revealed in this review.
The Swede, as he is referred to in many parts of the film is a businessman with a happy family Seymour’s life begins to slide off the rails when his teenaged daughter, Merry becomes radicalized in reaction to the war in Vietnam. Soon she rejects her family’s comfortable existence for a secret life of violent protest. She is involved with the bombing of a gas station in which an innocent man, Mr. Hanson is killed. As Merry goes into hiding, the father slowly seeks her out. His wife (Jennifer Connelly) however, goes into mental breakdown mode, resulting in an affair after getting a sought after facelift. There are subplots involving Seymour’s stern father (Peter Riegert) and Merry’s somewhat kooky therapist (Molly Parker).
McGregor’s direction and John Romano’s (INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LINCOLN LAWYER) script lack the sardonic wit, punch and edginess of a Roth novel. The film, consisting of a series of dramatic set-ups also lacks any humour. Certain segments like the encounters with the therapist are primed for humour but sadly they are just set up form plot motion.
To the film’s credit, the lush 60’s atmosphere with the vintage cars, props and wardrobe work well. The then President’s (LBJ) face can be seen on the old television set as well.
As far as McGregor playing the all-American football star, it takes a lot of credibility. There is a shot of him in a sports singlet, looking more cutesy than athletic. The only casualty in the story appears to be McGregor’s character. He gets both his wife’s and daughter’s rejections and to make it all worse, is diagnosed with prostrate cancer.
At one point in the film, the father questions how the daughter suddenly came to be such a rebel. The audience would no doubt feel the same with respect to answers. The book delves int Merry’s rejection from her stuttering to her obesity, but these factors are ignored in the film.
AMERICAN PASTORAL is an interesting enough satisfactory film and a worthy directorial debut. One can only wish a better adaptation of Roth’s Pulitzer Prize novel from a veteran director.
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