[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. American Pastoral opens this Friday in limited release.]
I like Ewan McGregor. I think he’s a charming presence in films and despite his longevity in the industry (he’s been a star since 1996’s Trainspotting), he’s frequently underrated despite his range and versatility (he has no Oscar nominations and can only get lead roles in independent films). I hoped his directorial debut, American Pastoral, might not only allow him to show another dimension to his acting, but reveal a promising new career avenue. Sadly, McGregor’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel does neither. Instead, it’s a tedious, uninspired picture that could have worked if it had painted its hapless protagonist as an individual rather than an everyman. McGregor swings for the fences in his portrayal of an anguished father, but the only thing he hits is an obnoxious metaphor about how the 60s killed America.
The film uses a framing device where writer Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) is attending his high school reunion and bumps into his old friend Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans). He learns that Jerry’s brother, Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor) has recently passed away. Nathan admits he was out of the country for most of the 60s and hadn’t heard about the tragic downfall of a man he greatly admired, a man who stood as an exemplar for the purity of postwar America. We then flashback to where Swede and his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) raise their daughter Merry (Hannah Nordberg) on an idyllic farm. However, when Merry becomes a rebellious teenager (Dakota Fanning), she’s suspected of blowing up the local post office and goes on the run. Swede continues to hunt for his daughter, but the damage is done and his perfect life begins to crumble.
If American Pastoral didn’t have its framing device and was just a story about a man trying to find his estranged daughter, it would work slightly better. The characters would still be broadly drawn, but at least Swede could stand in as an individual undergoing a personal crisis rather than an exemplar for America. As an individual, he’s a hurt parent who can’t give up on his wayward child. That may not carry any lofty subtext, but it’s a universal relationship and it’s where McGregor invests the film’s emotional energy.
Unfortunately, the framing device sets up Swede as America’s golden boy. He’s a sports hero. He’s a soldier (although one who came in at the tail-end of the war so he’s not scarred by PTSD; all of the glory, none of the scars!). He’s a proud businessman whose workforce is 80% African-American. He’s got the dream life of the upper middle class that was promised to every single American after World War II. And then his lefty daughter has to go and mess it all up.
Swede doesn’t get painted as a person. He doesn’t have weaknesses. His biggest mistake is that he loves his daughter too much. He doesn’t give into temptation. He’s not racist. He’s basically what white Americans think of when they look back at “better days” because for a white, heterosexual family man like Swede, the postwar 1950s were a golden era (Swede’s Jewishness never seems to have any negative impact on his life, and it’s so rarely noted that he may as well be secular). Never mind that anyone who wasn’t a white, heterosexual male probably had a slightly rougher go of things. And anyone who comes to mess up Swede’s perfect existence is the enemy. In this case, it’s the radical left as represented by ne’er-do-well Merry.
If Swede is the perfect American, then his wife and daughter are the ones who ruin everything. One day, Merry is a sweet, innocent girl (with the exception of one scene where she tries to seduce her father, a sloppy attempt at foreshadowing how she’ll come to ruin his life) and then we cut forward and she’s an angry radical. She’s now the poster child for how the 60s corrupted the youth of America, and that our downfall didn’t come from globalization or supply-side economics or any number of factors that shape a rich and diverse nation. It was those damn radical leftists and weak-willed women like Dawn who ran from their problems and hid away in cosmetic surgery. O, woe to the noble American white man. O, woe to the Swede.
It’s not that McGregor seems to actively be pushing a political agenda as much as it’s a natural result of the framing device. McGregor is far more invested in the emotional stakes, but because the framing device recasts the characters as symbols, their emotional journey matters less than what those symbols represent. McGregor wants to give his fellow actors room to shine, but it all plays as melodrama rather than emotions from real people.
The tenor of American Pastoral makes it seem like McGregor was drawn to the story about a family man whose life was ripped apart by a love for his daughter. In more confident, experienced hands, that could have been enough for a strong picture, and it seems like that’s the picture McGregor thought he made—a heartbreaking story of a father unable to save his child from her own bad decisions. But by trying to speak to something larger about American history, American Pastoral trips over its own words and spouts nonsense.