Rated: R for some strong sexual material, language and brief violent images. Reviewed by: Jim Release date: October 21, 2016 Released by: Lions Gate Films
An ambitious, though awkward, slipshod rendering of an acclaimed, thorny Philip Roth novel is highlighted by its physical décor in the production, costume and lensing departments for atmospheric period authenticity. It falls short of the controversial, forgotten Anthony Hopkins starrer The Human Stain and this summer's sharper Indignation about a Jewish college student's angst in 1951 Ohio.
Yet, American Pastoral, Ewan MacGregor's debut behind the camera while starring as New Jersey Jewish former strapping athletic star Seymour "The Swede" covering the turbulent '60s into the '70s has none of the chilling intensity of its progenitor. The script by John Romano (Nights of Rodanthe, The Lincoln Lawyer) aims to project an authorial voice, but is truncated in a way that the Scottish newbie can't provide important avenues of socio-political context or melodramatic verve to make its strands coalesce with the desired momentum.
A bookending device using Roth's alter ego Nathan (David Strathairn) with Swede's brother (Rupert Evans) about the unhappy brother (told in flashback) has an amateurish feel with aging makeup for Evans and in a montage for MacGregor hardly flattering.
A domestic tale with unnerving underpinnings as discord on a larger and smaller scale coincides doesn't resonate like the filmmakers presumably devised it. Swede inherits the family leather glove business from his father (a pretty good Peter Riegert), marries a lovely agricultural-minded Catholic lady Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). And, has a daughter Merry (played at 12 years old by a fine Hannah Nordberg and mostly afterward by Dakota Fanning) with a speech impediment.
The story's primary arc considers Fanning's Merry being radically influenced by the Vietnam which implicates her in a local tragedy and Swede trudging through the dark side of a metropolis after her. Dawn keys into a personal makeover and is rightfully mentally distressed, but the capable Connelly just can't make this troubled woman interesting; probably a victim of the trawling, onerous nature of this familial representation, and she doesn't come off well in an intimate sequence. Fanning is like a pastiche in a one-note performance and being with MacGregor (physically miscast even if his American accent may be better than some may think) hardly has the expected payoff. Maybe, besides the drollery endowed by Riegert, Valorie Curry's vampish activist elicits some of misogynistic fire from the pages of Roth to offer some solace on a secondary level.
From this injudicious refitting by what is motivated to be more of movie-of-the-week caliber than for the required medium MacGregor has more than met his match with the daunting American Pastoral. He's just unable to reproduce any honest impassioned depth and complexity, not to mention bona fide interpersonal relations that, say, the late Anthony Minghella did with another seemingly impenetrable novel, The English Patient.