By all accounts, Ewan McGregor is a great guy. Talented, charming and attractive, the actor is nearly impossible not to like. When he decided to make his directorial debut, you have to admire that he attempted something as ambitious as an adaptation of ‘American Pastoral’, Philip Roth’s sweepingly ambitious and symbol-laden tale of American history. Unfortunately, the results are downright disastrous.
All right, so this story is about America, and how in them turbulent 1960s the times sure were a-changin’! It all starts in a useless wraparound that made far more sense in the book. David Strathairn plays Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s stand-in. At a high school reunion, he meets other actors in bad old age makeup. That leads to discussion of the former high school quarterback and American hero, Seymour “Swede” Levov (predictably played by McGregor). The guy seemed to have everything going for him, even marrying the local beauty queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly).
The whole movie plays in flashback from there as the couple gets the American Dream with a beautiful farmhouse and wonderful daughter. Unfortunately, that daughter (Dakota Fanning) comes of age in the troubled 1960s. Race riots break out around Seymour’s glove factory, causing messy revelations about racism for our perfect hero. Then daughter Merry becomes radicalized and starts hanging out with protestors and questioning the perfect America that Seymour loved so dearly. Eventually, there’s a bombing and Merry disappears after being named the only suspect. The perfect home collapses, and wife Dawn has a breakdown and gets some plastic surgery to inspire infidelity. Things really didn’t work out for that perfect boy. Oh boy, they sure didn’t!
This is the type of sprawling story of a changing America that’s been told many times before in projects both serious (like, say, pretty much all of the great American movies of the 1970s) and stupid (‘Forrest Gump’, though even that’s sneakily satirical). McGregor desperately wants his directorial debut to fall into the former category, but sadly he ends up in the latter. That’s mostly due to the source material. Many have tried and failed to bring Philip Roth’s writing to the screen. He’s one of those writers whose literary devices seem profound on the page, but crumble when performed by humans. Here, the glaring symbolism inherent in every plot beat, character and setting is overt and obnoxious. The movie doesn’t just hold our hand in presenting grand meaning and ambition; it screams them at viewers to the point of exhaustion. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Roth’s odd fear of women will have many viewers wishing McGregor had gone for something more subtly offensive. Certainly the women aren’t people, just threatening sex objects, figures of impossible purity, or some uncomfortable combination of the two.
Performances are pretty rough despite the talent involved. McGregor does his best, but can never make a human out of his symbol of American idealism (which is ironic casting given the actor’s undeniable Scottishness). Connelly tries to infuse tragedy into her cartoon, but can’t overcome the soapy melodrama she’s forced to play. Dakota Fanning works hard and fares best, but she’s stuck with overly mannered stuttering dialogue that no actor could naturalize. There are times when human comedy sneaks in and the actors light up, just not nearly enough. They’re stuck as pawns in Roth’s grand polemic and never get a chance to rise to the occasion.
It’s odd that an actor would choose a script to direct with such impossible characters to play. Maybe McGregor thought he could overcome it? If so, he didn’t. He did craft some pretty pictures, though. Perhaps if he gets a better script next time, McGregor could prove to be a decent director, but whether he even deserves that chance is a reasonable question. ‘American Pastoral’ is a mess. Perhaps it’s a grand and ambitious mess from a lovable actor trying to direct, but it’s just too tedious, overwrought, poorly played, and downright offensive to register. Those who love the book are advised to stay far away. I suppose those who hate it might appreciate the opportunity to laugh at the expense of this project’s failed ambitions, but that’s far too cruel an act to encourage.