Ewan McGregor has proven time and again that he is worthy of our respect as an actor. The same can’t be said about him as a director – at least not yet. Making its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, McGregor’s directorial debut AMERICAN PASTORAL, a drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth novel of the same name, is ambitious but falls far from the hype surrounding it.
Like many of Roth’s novels, American Pastoral explores Jewish and American identity. Adapted by John Romano for the big screen, this story follows the story of high school Golden Boy-turned-successful businessman Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor), his beauty queen wife-turned-cowhand Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and his impressionable daughter with a stutter Merry (Dakota Fanning). They are an idyllic All-American family, but as society goes deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War and revolutionary turmoil, their family starts to unravel beginning with their daughter who goes on a militant tirade and rebels against the government as well as her family. Swede tries his best to keep his family together, but his daughter doesn’t make it easy and his wife begins to go into a downward spiral — but the more he tries, the worse things seem to get. And that goes double for this film. As each minute passes, you hope things get better, but it just keeps on digging itself into a hole.
Given the high hopes surrounding American Pastoral, it’s unfortunate that there are more things wrong with it than right. The novel is narrated by a friend of Swede’s brother, which may work in a literary sense, but it simply doesn’t translate cinematically. Having an outsider narrate the life of a family that he is not directly related to disconnects the story from its primary players — which lost me from the get-go.
If an outsider narrating doesn’t bother you, don’t worry. There are plenty of other problems worth noting. There’s the bizarre CG effects to make Connelly and McGregor look freakishly young. There’s the overall heavy-handed storytelling, unbalanced pace, and stiff, awkward execution of the dialogue that makes the film painfully pedestrian. There is also no deftness in the blending of the socially conscious Vietnam-era political unrest with the family drama; rather, it’s forced and fails to connect. And although it’s entertaining to watch Fanning’s Merry become a fully unhinged, horrible human being, it was a performance that eventually became too obnoxious to take seriously.
American Pastoral has beautiful art direction and includes some satisfying moments — mostly the moments of intense conflict because it provides a very temporary modicum of excitement. But aside from that, it’s a struggle to watch — and it’s always more difficult to watch a film that you were hoping to like. McGregor’s passion for this film shows, but fervent passion does not always a good film make.
Dino-Ray Ramos watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
Running time: 126 minutes
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer