'American Pastoral': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A reductive telling of a sprawling, complex tale.

Ewan McGregor stars alongside Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Connelly in his feature directorial debut, an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel about a man whose daughter grows up to become a terrorist.

Big-screen adaptations of Philip Roth novels have generally been mixed bags at best, and the tradition continues with American Pastoral, a narratively conventionalized version of the author’s big-canvas 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning look at the decline of family, civic and national unity from the 1940s to 1970s. Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, in which he also stars, is decently performed and delivers some potent scenes of inter-generational discord between a concerned father and a radicalized daughter who becomes a murderous terrorist. But the filmmaking is prosaic when it should crackle with tension and disruptive undercurrents, leaving Lionsgate with an October release unlikely to generate significant returns theatrically.

The novel represented Roth’s ambitious and largely successful attempt to lay out and analyze the breakdown of American society on every significant level in the 1960s, from family, religious and small business life to domestic interracial strife and political and international fiascos dominated by LBJ, Nixon and the Vietnam War. This is a lot of dramatic and thematic baggage, to be sure, but the author found a productive way of focusing it through the downward spiraling fortunes of an Adonis-like Jewish sports hero, nicknamed Swede, his WASP wife and their daughter, a stutterer who is transformed by events into a Weather Underground-style rebel, events paralleled by the violent self-immolation of Newark, New Jersey.

As in the book, the dismaying fraying of the Levov family is laid out at a 45th high school reunion by Swede’s brother Jerry (Rupert Evans) to old classmate Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), who informs that Swede has just died. Thereafter follows a straight flashback account of the handsome hometown idol and, on the surface, his successful life: Here was a Jewish football star and Marine who married a shiksa Miss New Jersey (Jennifer Connelly) but, instead of setting his sights high, took over the family glove-making business and, with 80 percent black employees, tried to keep it going even through the worst of the racial violence that struck the community in the 1960s.

Screenwriter John Romano (The Lincoln Lawyer, Nights in Rodanthe) zeroes in on the tragic trajectory of the father-daughter relationship. At 12,  beautiful Merry has a bad stutter and an Audrey Hepburn complex (Hannah Nordberg does a sweet and short rendition of “Moon River”); by 16, Merry (now played by Dakota Fanning) is a full-on revolutionary who spends as much time as possible in New York with fellow cell members and disappears when a powerful bomb goes off in the local post office/general store, killing the beloved proprietor. It’s a crime for which Merry is quickly determined to be responsible.

It’s also a transgression with fateful ripples on every conceivable personal level, the most dramatic of which involve Swede’s eventual rediscovery of his daughter in shocking circumstances. With Swede cast as the ever-earnest, heartbroken dad and his wife Dawn much more easily slamming the door on the daughter she’s given up on as a hopeless cause, the film’s ripest dramatic opportunities fall to Fanning, who rises to the occasion with her best big-screen work in a number of years.

Compressed into under two hours, this examination of family and social upheaval across the mid-century feels more like a check-list of ills than a nuanced and penetrating look at profound seismic shifts in the domestic landscape. The Newark riots are reduced to what looks like a block street scuffle, and select TV news clips, from the self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk to LBJ on the warpath, serve as bookmarks in the panorama of 20th century history.

In the leading role, McGregor cuts a credible figure of an admirably all-American ideal but doesn’t provide sufficient nuances and colorings to give the man depth or layers of interest. Fine physical representation is similarly there but emotional dimension is also lacking in Connelly’s portrayal of a former beauty queen with many regrets. Peter Riegert is very good as Swede’s old-school Jewish dad and Valorie Curry has some potent moments as a revolutionary who taunts the searching father, while Rupert Evans seems miscast in the role of Swede’s brother, who is far more colorfully vituperative in the book than onscreen.

Shot in Pittsburgh and vicinity rather than in New Jersey, the film does serve up any number of engagingly dramatic scenes, but anything resembling the complexity and depth of the novel are certainly missing.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Opens: Oct. 21 (Lionsgate)
Production companies: Lakeshore Entertainment, Lionsgate
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegert, Rupert Evans, Uzo Aduba, Molly Parker, Valorie Curry, Hannah Nordberg, Julia Silverman, Mark Hildreth, Samantha Mathis, David Strathairn
Director: Ewan McGregor
Screenwriter: John Romano, based on the novel by Philip Roth
Producers: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Andre Lamal
Executive producers: Eric Reid, Terry A. McKay
Director of photography: Martin Ruhe
Production designer: Daniel B. Clancy
Costume designer: Lindsay Ann McKay
Editor: Melissa Kent
Music: Alexander Desplat
Casting: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood

Rated R, 108 minutes