Directed by: Ewan McGregor.
Written by: John Romano based on the novel by Philip Roth.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Seymour 'Swede' Levov ), Jennifer Connelly (Dawn), Dakota Fanning (Merry Levov), Peter Riegert (Lou Levov), Rupert Evans (Jerry Levov), Uzo Aduba (Vicky), Molly Parker (Dr. Sheila Smith), David Strathairn (Nathan Zuckerman), David Case (Russ Hamlin), Valorie Curry (Rita Cohen), Corrie Danieley (Jesse Orcutt), Ocean James (Merry Levov - age 8) , Hannah Nordberg (Merry Levov - age 12), Julia Silverman (Sylvia Levov), David Whalen (Bill Orcutt).
There really is no shame in not being able to translate Philip Roth’s American Pastoral for the movies. Many directors and screenwriters have been attached to the film version in the nearly 20 years since Roth’s masterpiece – arguably his greatest work – was released, and they’ve all abandoned it at one point or another. Oscar winner Robert Benton failed to translate Roth’s The Human Stain – a part of the same trilogy as American Pastoral – to the screen in 2003. Roth is one of the great American novelists of the 20th (and 21st) Century – and yet, few have even attempted to adapt his work, and it was only earlier this year – with James Schamus’ Indignation – that a filmmaker did Roth justice onscreen. So, no, it shouldn’t be surprising that actor Ewan McGregor, making his directorial debut, wasn’t able to pull off Roth’s novel for the movie. Yet, watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if McGregor and screenwriter John Romano even understood Roth’s novel – for all the flaws in The Human Stain, Benton understood the novel, he just failed to translate that well to the screen. But McGregor and Romano so fundamentally change Roth’s novel that I cannot help but wonder why the hell they even bothered. Some of those changes are necessary to make the book more cinematic to be sure – but some of them come out of left field, and serve little purpose other than to change the meaning of Roth’s work. Now, if McGregor and company had made a good movie – and interesting one in anyway – than the film could have been a poor adaptation of Roth, but still a good movie. But they haven’t done that either – the film is odd and disjointed. There is no flow between the scenes – the characters don’t make much sense as presented, and so the talented cast flails around, trying to make something work. But it doesn’t.
Roth’s novel is one of his Nathan Zuckerman books – a Roth alter-ego, an aging “great writer”, who lives alone with his thoughts. The novel begins with two key meetings for Zuckerman, which bring him back to his childhood – the first is when Seymour “Swede” Levov, contacts him from out of the blue – the Swede was Zuckerman’s childhood idol – the older brother of Zuckerman’s friend Jerry, and the best athlete ever to come out of their school – a big blonde Jew, that everyone loved. The Swede wants Zuckerman to help him write an elegy for his late father – who just died, while closing in on 100 – and while Zuckerman doesn’t want to, he agrees to meet with the Swede out of curiosity. He comes away from that meeting thinking that the Swede is a big, dull, carefree guy. The second meeting, not long after, is at a high school reunion – where he runs into his old best friend – the Swede’s young brother, Jerry – and it’s Jerry who dissuades Zuckerman of his delusions. The Swede was far from carefree – he was destroyed when his daughter Merry, in the height of the 1960s, blew up the small post office in the rural community the Swede moved his family to. The Swede tried to make it right but couldn’t – and no, he’s dead too. This starts the narrative – which is basically the Swede’s story, as Zuckerman imagined it. It’s a story of the American dream lost – even when you do everything right. It is fundamentally a Jewish story – like The Human Stain, you could say it is a story about an outsider trying to “pass” in society – and being punished for it. The novel is layered – with narratives inside narratives, etc. – all told in Roth’s voice that makes it very hard to adapt.
The film version tries to streamline a lot of this material away – it keeps Zuckerman (played by David Straithairn), for reasons I don’t quite understand, as while the film does present it as Zuckerman telling the story of the Swede – it also quite clearly tells that story as a “true” story – not a Zuckerman projection. It also flattens the narrative out – telling the Swede’s story mainly in chronological order- as The Swede (played by McGregor) is the perfect son, who marries the gentile beauty queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), has a beautiful, blonde daughter – Merry (who grows up to be Dakota Fanning) – whose only problem is that she stutters (in Roth’s novel, she’s also overweight, which makes her supposed insecurity for not being able to live up to having a literal beauty queen as a mother more believable, then the series of adorable blonde girls who play Merry in the film). Merry grows into a rebellious teenager – who hates Lyndon Johnson, and the Vietnam War – and whose chief act of rebellion – before she blows up a post office, killing someone – is to play her music too loud, and act like she resents her parents. Once the deed is done, Dawn falls apart – and then decides to pretend they never had a daughter – but The Swede never can. There are subplots about the glove factory that The Swede takes over for his father in Newark – that stays even after the riots – and of a young revolutionary named Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) – who says she knows where Merry is, and torments the Swede with that knowledge.
There are many things wrong with the movie. McGregor has fatally miscast himself in the lead role – which signals the films deeper problem of stripping away many of the Jewish elements of the narrative than were so important to the novel (I’m not saying that the film tries to pretend the Swede isn’t Jewish – just that it backgrounds it too much). It turns Dawn, a sympathetic character in the novel, into a hateful, crazy shrew – giving the talented Connelly a few chances to go crazy, but to no effect. Fanning – and the rest of the girls who play Merry – struggle mightily with the stuttering – so much so that I retroactively love Colin Firth’s work in The King’s Speech even more (as a former stutterer, I know what it sounds like). Fanning’s too old to be playing this sort of cheap teenage rebellion – but the film doesn’t give her much to do. The final shot in the movie is the icing on the cake – a complete and total upending of everything the novel had been about, and the single most wrongheaded thing I have seen in a movie this year.
There is also a problem with just basic competence behind the camera – which McGregor only shows at times. He isn’t bad in the early scenes – they put a deliberate, false sheen on everything – as if McGregor is trying to paint the suburbs in the kind of fake, picture perfect way that filmmakers like Hitchock (in Shadow of a Doubt), Ray (in Bigger Than Life), Lynch (in Blue Velvet) or Mendes (in American Beauty) – among many, many others have done, before exposing it as something darker as the narrative progresses. Unfortunately, McGregor’s way of showing that is to literally start turning off lights.