It’s telling that the trailer for American Pastoral features almost no dialogue at all, just a painterly series of images (flag, firebomb, meaningful stare) unreeling over a melancholy cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut is built on words — the Pulitzer-prize winning ones of Phillip Roth’s iconic 1997 novel — and it’s sunk by them too.
McGregor also stars as Seymour “Swede” Levov, the blue-eyed Jewish pride of 1950s Newark: An all-star athlete turned model businessman with a shiksa beauty-queen wife (Jennifer Connelly) and a pretty young daughter, Merry (Ocean James), whose only flaw is a persistent stutter and a vaguely skeevy wish to have her father kiss her “the way you kiss Mu-mu-mu-mother.”
But when Merry grows up to be Dakota Fanning, a seething mass of teenage angst and political zealotry, she commits a criminal act that blows apart the family’s fragile peace and sends Swede’s sensical, well-ordered world spinning. On the page, it’s a fascinating portrait of father-daughter dynamics, cultural identity, and the fallout of ‘60s radicalism; somehow, the movie manages to take all the richness and subtext of Roth’s writing and turn it into just text, a flat and clumsy paper-doll melodrama that even some gorgeous cinematography and a raft of gifted, great-looking actors can’t save.
As hard as they work to add nuance, Connelly is trapped in mad-housewife hysteria, Fanning’s a brat, and McGregor never really rises above a strange, stunned blandness. It’s a noble effort, almost completely lost in translation; give it an American pass. C–