AMERICAN PASTORAL (Ewan McGregor). 108 minutes. Opens Friday (October 21). See listings. Rating: N
Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the decline and fall of America as seen through one particular New Jersey family in the 1960s and 70s is way too complex to adapt into a feature film. But even if it could be done, maybe in a 10-part HBO miniseries, Scottish actor Ewan McGregor wouldn’t be the man to direct or play its salt-of-the-earth, all-American tragic hero.
Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor), based on an actual figure, was a spectacular all-round athlete who was revered by his fellow middle-class Jews in and around Newark, New Jersey. He takes over his immigrant father’s successful glove business, marries a non-Jewish woman, a former beauty queen named Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and has a daughter named Merry.
It’s Merry (Ocean James as a child and Dakota Fanning as a young woman), who has a speech impediment and later gets involved in radical anti-Vietnam activities, who upsets the Levov family’s fairy tale existence. But there’s instability everywhere, from the unrest in the streets to Dawn’s emotional fragility.
As a director, McGregor can’t find the right tone for the film, which dully and earnestly lurches uneasily from one era to the next. Not one frame feels authentic, from terribly Photoshopped images of the young Swede (McGregor as a football hero? Right!) to laughable old-age makeup in the later years.
Some of the book’s best passages, angry, excoriating rants by the narrator, are MIA here. Even the pages-long description of the leather glove industry loses its power when truncated and spoken as dialogue.
What we get instead is a tame, movie-of-the-week treatment about the perils of radical politics. McGregor, resembling a shiny-faced alien rather than a Nordic-looking, Jewish New Jersey sports hero (his accent is all wrong), doesn’t even get interesting work from his cast. Connelly seems set adrift, especially in an awkward nude sequence, and David Strathairn as Roth’s alter ego, the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, and Uzo Aduba as a loyal factory employee are given nothing to do.
The only actor who comes close to capturing the frightening intensity of the novel is Valorie Curry (The Following, Blair Witch), whose manipulative activist Rita Cohen is scarily fucked-up. The portrait is as misogynist as it is in the novel, but at least it’s intriguing to watch.