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Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connolly in American Pastoral.

Philip Roth is unquestionably one of the titans of American literature, and yet the cinematic landscape is littered with unsatisfactory adaptations of his work: Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain, Elegy, The Humbling. They stretch back to the 1960s, and with only one exception, they haven’t given a clue as to the deep and troubling literary merits of their sources. Now comes American Pastoral, adapted from Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel of the same name, and I’m sad to say a sweeping and rather uncinematic book has produced a top-heavy, tasteful, overstuffed film.

It begins with a badly handled framing device of frequent Roth protagonist Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) going to his high-school’s 45th class reunion in 1996. There he hears the sad story of Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor), the school’s golden boy who was a few years ahead of Zuckerman. The rest of the movie is told in flashback, as Swede marries a shiksa beauty queen named Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), takes over his father’s successful glovemaking business, and settles in a big house in the New Jersey countryside, replete with cows. The ruin of his life turns out to be his beloved only child Meredith, a.k.a. Merry (Dakota Fanning), an impassioned girl afflicted with a stutter and brimming with anger over the Vietnam War. At 16, she vanishes from their home at the same time that the local post office blows up, killing its manager.

McGregor pulls double duty as director here, marking his first effort in that capacity. As the hero of the piece, he does a fine job of imitating the character’s Jewish New Jersey speech patterns. (Peter Riegert plays Swede’s dad, so you can compare McGregor’s accent with the genuine article.) Unfortunately, as a director, he stays resolutely on the burnished surface of things. The early scene with Swede introducing his fiancée to his dad is included for no discernible reason, while Roth’s subplot involving Swede’s affair with a therapist is cut out. The book is caught up largely in Swede’s inward agony, so perhaps it’s no surprise that John Romano’s script fails to lend any tragic weight to Merry or Dawn. However, Swede himself comes off largely as a cipher, too, because McGregor can’t find a way into this fundamentally decent man whose life has spun out of control. The filmmakers omit Swede’s and Roth’s cogitations on America’s mythic sense of itself and can’t reconcile the small scale of this domestic tragedy with the novel’s epic scope. That’s how this movie feels shrunken and sprawling at the same time.

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This past summer, we finally had a movie adaptation that got Roth more or less right. It was James Schamus’ Indignation, putting its finger on America’s midcentury prosperity and the awkward dance that Jews and Gentiles did to accommodate each other culturally. That film proved it’s possible to do this author justice on the big screen. American Pastoral only proves that it’s much easier to get him wrong.

[box_info]American Pastoral
Starring Ewan McGregor and Dakota Fanning. Directed by Ewan McGregor. Written by John Romano, based on Philip Roth’s novel. Rated R. Now playing in Dallas.[/box_info]

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