Give Ewan McGregor credit for not starting small.
For his first feature film as a director, he gave himself a number of difficult things to do. American Pastoral is a period piece, a piece of Americana and a literary adaptation. It’s a story about individual people, but also the story of an era.
And the Philip Roth novel of the same name is tonally difficult to convey on screen, somewhat extreme — not farce, not black comedy, but pushing at the edges of naturalism.
Oh, yes, and McGregor chose to star in the movie, too.
That’s taking on a lot, and for that reason, perhaps it should count as a success that McGregor fought this material to a draw, or maybe slightly better than that.
American Pastoral is an earnest film, a well-acted film and, despite the presence of a star-director, a generous film. As a director, McGregor is good to his co-stars and highlights them throughout. But the energy drops out of the last third of the picture and takes with it much of its aura of importance.
The 1997 novel — part of Roth’s remarkable late flowering of significant work — is, in the best sense, an old man’s story, a looking back on the past with ruefulness, clarity and a frank appreciation of life’s mystery. Told as a recollection by Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (David Straithairn), the movie looks back on the story of “Swede” Levov, a high school sports hero admired by everyone in middle-class, Jewish, Newark, N.J.
Swede (McGregor) starts life like one of those F. Scott Fitzgerald characters, young and touched by light. He’s confident and breezy; and every door is open to him.
He goes to war but misses serious action. He comes home and marries the nicest and most beautiful woman in town (Jennifer Connelly). Already financially well-off, he turns his family’s glove-making business into an even bigger success, and he buys a sprawling farm in the suburbs.
Trouble arrives, but slowly, so it doesn’t seem like trouble at first. He and his wife have a daughter, and she develops a stutter.
This is hardly the end of the world. The movie is unclear as to the origins of the stutter, whether it’s just one of those things that would clear up on its own, or whether it’s an expression of some tension within the family. But certainly something does seem off — either within the family dynamic or the little girl’s psyche — when she asks her father one night to kiss her the way he kisses “mommy.”
He’s appalled, and so is the audience, but where this is all coming from remains unclear.
However, by the time she’s a teenager, something is definitely wrong with the daughter (Dakota Fanning). She develops a strong dislike of her father and a detestation of her mother.
She becomes obsessed with radical politics, rants about the Vietnam War and keeps telling her parents that they’re horrible people, capitalist oppressors who must be overthrown along with Lyndon Johnson and the rest of the evil oligarchy.
She is delusional and unreachable, more than just the usual obnoxious self-righteous youth, and as you watch her, you will almost certainly be reminded of the homegrown terrorists of our own time.
American Pastoral is about the unraveling of dreams, about how things sometimes happen that seem random and capricious and even absurd and yet they can drain away all the sweetness from life and leave people, in middle-age, looking around like mute witnesses.
Connelly is particularly strong in this, starting the film looking golden and chosen, and then gradually confused, then stricken and then brittle. McGregor gives her a terrific showcase, a long monologue filmed in long takes, in which she muses about how her life has gone bad.
Unfortunately, in the last third, American Pastoral contracts on every front. It becomes less about the story’s general issues and more about the specifics of a father’s relationship with his daughter — even as that story itself becomes less interesting.
The film never finds the right note of strangeness or madness to go with the sadness. It’s all just grim and pathetic.
Chalk this one up as a close one, a bold attempt by a McGregor, but a near miss.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; Angelika Plano
☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning
Cast: Ewan McGregor
Rated: R (strong sexual material, language and brief violent images)
Running time: 126 min.