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At a 40-year high school reunion in Newark, New Jersey, a popular writer named Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) wanders the halls in quiet resolution and stops at a trophy case where a display of a former all-star athlete named Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor) has him thinking of good times gone past, of a local hero and his seemingly magic life. Nathan is joined by Jerry (Rupert Evans), Swede’s younger brother, and the two sit and talk, where Nathan learns that Swede has died, something Nathan had not known. He then finds out that there is much he did not know.
Things that are common knowledge is Swede’s marriage to beauty queen Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), a Roman Catholic girl who steadfastly convinces Swede’s Jewish father Lou (Peter Riegert), that she should marry his son. In time, Swede and Dawn take over Lou’s highly successful glove manufacturing plant and soon have a daughter, who grows to develop a significant stutter. A feircely independent girl, Merry (played as an adult by Dakota Fanning), adopts the revolutionary counter-culture of the time, angry about political corruption, civil rights violations, and rising Vietnam War atrocities. When a bomb goes off in town, investigators suspect Merry, who promptly disappears. It’s an act of defiance that lead Swede and Dawn down a spiraling path of self-destruction.
Directed by McGregor and adapted from the novel of the same name by Philip Roth, American Pastoral is about the end of innocence per se of the American Dream, represented by the small family unit that itself reflects the crumbling streets of the world around them. It centers on Swede, an idyllic handsome man whose perspective we rigidly follow throughout, always believing that no matter what has happened to the women in his life, he can save them and bring them home. As Merry disappears and Dawn suffers a breakdown, the women become peripheral to Swede’s efforts as he struggles to maintain the factory and home as the streets outside literally collapse into riots. As time passes, the story becomes a tale less about the motivations of Merry but rather the persistence of Swede.
This becomes the film’s larger issue as Merry devolves into a blank slate that earns her no sympathy. There is no growth to the disenchantment as Merry is portrayed perfunctorily adorable as a young child and then almost immediately, aggressively hostile as a teen. As her family and home life is, as the title suggests, pastoral, it feels forced that she automatically rejects its, and superficially at best, making it hard to get behind her. It also doesn’t help that Fanning plays it one-dimensionally, talking like she’s memorizing lines for a suggested reading, which for some of it is exactly the point, but it makes it hard to feel any compassion for her fate.
McGregor and Connelly are both good actors and here they have moments, but the script (by John Romano) leaves too many gaps. This sees McGregor over-doing it in many key scenes, and lessening the impact and understanding of how Dawn deals with Merry, beyond one well-spoken eulogy to her life’s failings. Under McGregor’s direction, the film can’t quite find the right tone in bringing these figures to life, as well. He paints in broad strokes as he slips through time with archival footage and obvious song choices that have become tropes of the genre, never getting it so we feel truly a part of the times. A sentimental ending feels like a betrayal of it all, and even a little abrupt, while the bookending with Strathairn is far too melodramatic.
American Pastoral feels incomplete, with moments that should have been better staged and choices that come without authenticity. While McGregor shows some competency behind the camera, the film as a whole feels stripped of the power it could have had in portraying these years of upheaval.
Movie description: American Pastoral is a 2016 drama about an all-American couple who seem to have the perfect life until the turmoil of the 1960s begins to tears them apart.
Director(s): Ewan McGregor
Actor(s): Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning