It takes a lot of guts for a movie star to transition into directing. Although landing that debut gig will likely be far easier than it would be for anyone lacking experience, the pressure is high and folks will be rooting for failure. Ewan McGregor deserves credit for even giving it a shot, but the fact that he decided to adapt a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth is practically suicidal.
Not only is Roth a notoriously difficult writer to translate into film, but the specific book ‘American Pastoral’ is the type of grand literary experiment destined to fail on screen. Props to McGregor for his ambition, and he seems to have a certain sense of how to handle film visually. Shame about the rest of the movie, though.
The story fumbles through a wraparound high school reunion plot that likely made more sense as a novelistic conceit than as a cinematic one. David Strathairn appears as Roth’s alter ego taking a stroll down memory lane and remembering a former superstar quarterback known as The Swede (McGregor, natch) whom he assumed would have led a magical life after being the king of the school. Then he meets the Swede’s brother wearing bad old-age makeup and learns the truth.
Everything started great for The Swede ’cause it was the 1950s. He married the local beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly) and they got a beautiful house in the country along with a gorgeous daughter. Unfortunately, the ’60s followed and everything got screwy. That old American Dream didn’t work anymore. The Swede had to deal with race riots at his leather glove factory and couldn’t believe that racism was a thing. Then his stuttering teen daughter (Dakota Fanning) turned into a political radical in his very home and it tore the family apart. Stupid ’60s… didn’t you notice how great everything was in the ’50s?
This is one of those stories about how the beautiful dream of Eisenhower’s America was destroyed by those filthy hippies with their dirty drugs and loud music and oddball ideals. On the page, the story feels sweepingly symbolic. On film, the whole thing is quite rushed and frequently falls flat. McGregor clearly enjoys being in charge of the camera for the first time, mounting beauty shot after beauty shot laced with visual metaphors. Unfortunately, it’s all a bit on-the-nose, which doesn’t mesh well with a condensed version of Roth’s overly symbolic story. At times, ‘America Pastoral’ almost plays like a parody of self-important Oscar bait movies, especially when tiresome hippie rock music cues let the audience know about them changin’ times.
McGregor wears his heart on his sleeve with the movie and syrupy sincerity is his downfall. The script’s overly faithful presentation of Roth’s words leads to monologues that no actors could possibly deliver, even a cast this talented. The layers of symbols and reverberating American themes are pounded so hard into viewers’ heads that it feels like being battered with cinematic self-importance. It somehow drags on way too long while also moving a little too quickly. Most of Roth’s humor doesn’t make the transition, but all of his awkward misogyny certainly does.
The movie is simply a failure. However, it’s the type of embarrassingly overambitious debut feature that McGregor might be able to recover from. He made so many obvious first-time director mistakes here that it should nearly impossible to repeat them all again next time.