Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut ‘American Pastoral’ delivers lackluster Philip Roth adaptation

"American Pastoral" | Lionsgate Films Grade: C
Richard Foreman/Courtesy
"American Pastoral" | Lionsgate Films
Grade: C

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It’s safe to say the force was with Ewan McGregor this year, mostly. Making his directorial debut with the film adaptation of Philip Roth’s praised novel “American Pastoral,” the two-time Golden Globe-nominated actor establishes himself as a modest double threat behind the camera and on the big screen.

Starring as Seymour “Swede” Levov, the “greatest athlete New Jersey ever saw” and a former marine, McGregor brings Roth’s American war hero to life in the politically charged decade of the 1960s. Married to Dawn, a “Miss New Jersey” pageant queen played by Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly, Levov’s life perfectly embodies the “American Dream” of his longing. While successfully running his father’s Newark glove factory and raising his treasured daughter Merry, Levov’s dream gradually becomes a toxic nightmare as Merry transitions from a lovingly innocent child to a rebellious, anti-war domestic terrorist.

A riveting storyline that begins with the historical events of the late 1940s and ends with a high school reunion in 1995, “American Pastoral” was not without its challenges for McGregor. The largest obstacle the first-time director experienced on page and on set was thoroughly capturing the spirit of Roth’s literary masterpiece.

“I never had the opportunity before to work with a costume designer, a hair designer, a production designer to mold something the way I imagined it and to elevate that imagining to something greater,” said McGregor in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I felt very much that what Roth might be exploring about American politics and history was done through the lens of this family. The focus was on this father and for me, personally, to make this Swede feel real.”

Using his tangible experience as a parent, McGregor naturally evokes the father-daughter bond in Roth’s story while attempting to capture the author’s broader picture of American culture and the impact of the Vietnam War. “I’ve got four girls and so I know very much what that father-daughter relationship feels like,” said McGregor. “My job as the director was to make the film also be about America and make it feel like the grandest scheme of things that Roth is writing about in his novel.”

Where McGregor’s film thrives in recreating the interconnected social and political developments of the 1960s with fitting costumes and set designs, “American Pastoral” sadly misses the mark with generic performances from a seasoned cast creating an uninspiring adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel far more deserving than its allotted director and running time. Starring as Seymour Levov’s stuttering daughter with radical left-wing views, Dakota Fanning’s effusive portrayal of Merry Levov can’t save this movie from the deep end it was heading for. It is only Connelly’s haunting performance as Dawn that redeems “Pastoral” from its meager demise.

Upon learning about her daughter’s intentional disappearance, Dawn dramatically changes from a sensible mother to an emotionally unstable, deeply saddened wife in an uncommitted marriage. Finding herself in a psychiatric ward after making a troubling entrance at Seymour’s glove factory in nothing but a “Miss New Jersey” sash and utter tears, Dawn’s life and mental health undergo extreme measures that Connelly grippingly fortifies and brings to a standout execution.

Contributing to the film’s lackluster adaptation is poor pacing and an unremarkable screenplay. Several scenes in “American Pastoral,” predominantly between Seymour and political radical Rita Cohen — played by emerging actress Valorie Curry — dawdle and hinder the film’s progression. One particular scene that proved unnecessary in length was Seymour’s interaction with Cohen in a discreet hotel room. Meeting with the left-wing extremist to gain further information on his missing daughter’s whereabouts, Seymour and Cohen talk entirely in circles as she unsuccessfully attempts to seduce the businessman and keep him diverted from locating Merry. In spite of Cohen’s captivatingly bold attempts at hindering Seymour’s search for Merry, the film fails to offer strong story arcs or well paced scenes to drive its plot forward.

For McGregor, creating Roth’s story and bringing opacity to the film helped establish a kind of depth the first-time director was endeavoring to demonstrate on screen. This depth was partially influenced by McGregor’s desire to leave “American Pastoral” open to audience interpretation.

“I never wanted to make a film that instructed the audience in order to feel it one way or another,” said McGregor. “I wanted a film full of ambiguities. This novel is full of ambiguities and uncertainties, and I didn’t try to answer them for the audience. I had to understand my version of what everything meant to me, but I think Roth presents lots of sides to arguments and themes that he’s exploring in the novel, and I tried to do that with the characters.”

Though his film adaptation of Roth’s book is in clear need of some screenplay improvements, McGregor gives an earnest effort at directing Roth’s award-winning work. Unfortunately, the “don’t judge a book by its movie” proverb could not be more applicable to this disappointing, utterly forgettable crime drama.

Contact Jordan Joyner at [email protected].

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