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American Pastoral

American Pastoral: Influential American Novel Turned Flat, Dull Mess

  • Dakota FanningEwan McGregor...
  • DramaMystery & Suspense
  • Ewan McGregor
reviewed by
Marija Loncarevic
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American Pastoral: Influential American Novel Turned Flat, Dull Mess

Based on a 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning Phillip Roth novel of the same name, American Pastoral is a strong reminder that not every book is destined to be translated onto the big screen effectively, no matter what. Marking his directorial debut, Ewan McGregor steps up to the challenge of converting what is considered by many to be one of the most influential novels of the 20th Century, but ultimately fails to bring any sort of cohesiveness, meaning or depth to the film which, at times, comes across as uninspiring and dull.

Adapted to the screen by Lincoln Lawyer’s John Romano, the story is centered on Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov (McGregor); a well-respected Jewish high-school athlete who became known for his Nordic good looks and who, after earning the title of a prom-king, went on to lead an idyllic life with beauty queen wife, Dawn (the surprisingly frigid Connelly). Along with their seemingly angelic young daughter, Merry (Fanning), the couple is settled in the picturesque farmland hills of Old Rimrock, New Jersey and their life couldn’t have been more perfect.

Unfortunately, their seemingly blissful existence is soon fractured when Merry begins to develop a severe stutter and, later as the late 60’s approach, begins to be drawn to seemingly radical political movements, forcing Swede and Dawn to reach out to their therapist, Dr. Shelia (Parker). Things begin to take a turn for the worst when a bomb explodes at a local gas station and Merry’s labeled as a prime suspect. With his daughter on the run, Swede soon begins to witness his idyllic life fall apart right before his very eyes and whilst he begins to look for ways to find his daughter, his marriage to Dawn begins to crumble in the process.    

American Pastoral is no easy watch. Roth’s work is often described as too elusive and abstract to be translated onto the silver screen. The story is told through flashbacks and is partly narrated by an acclaimed novelist – played by the ineffective David Strathairn – who, at the beginning of the movie, returns to Newark for a school reunion eager to learn more about his long-time obsession, Swede himself. Failing to establish the mood or any narrative connection, the story clumsily moves from one era to another and ends up miscarrying most of the weight needed to convey the story of an optimistic and a wholesome father dealing with his daughter’s extremist views to the backdrop of a 60s America that was in social and political turmoil.

Nothing sticks, so to speak, and while the visuals are relatively pleasing, McGregor fails to bring any substance or complexity to the material at hand. Trying to squeeze in a long list of ideas and themes, all dealing with the breakdown of American society in the 60’s and all the way through the late 70’s – including racism and the Vietnam war – it seems that McGregor has bitten off more than he can chew. Boring and devoid of any depth or interest, American Pastoral is one mind-numbing misfire. Not recommended. 

Like This? Try

The Human Stain (2003), Elegy (2008), Indignation (2016)

360 Tip

The script for American Pastoral had been collecting dust on a shelf since 2006.

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