American Pastoral, an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel about the decaying American dream, fails to capture the tragic vision of its source material.
This adaptation marks Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut and although, along with the cinematographer Martin Ruhe, he does have an eye for capturing a series of ‘American dream’ tableaux reminiscent of Willy Loman’s ideals – the star athlete; the loving father with a beautiful family and a big house; the successful businessman well-liked by everyone – his execution of its destruction won’t be troubling Arthur Miller any time soon.
This is primarily down to the sheer scope of the story. American Pastoral is unnecessarily framed by a narrator (David Strathairn) many years after the events, and focuses on Seymour ‘the Swede’ Levov (McGregor). A former star athlete, marine and now successful businessman whose idyllic life is ripped apart over a three decade period by the actions of his radicalised daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning), his own pusillanimity, and his distraught wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly).
McGregor desperately struggles to pack the three-decades’ worth of family drama into 110 minutes. When it took Roth nearly 450 pages, and included dense text such as, “I was a biography in constant motion, memory to the marrow of my bones,” one isn’t sure whether McGregor ever really had a chance. (One also wonders whether Roth’s novels are simply unfilmable, but that’s a story for another article.) Every dramatic scene is followed immediately by another eventful scene because there is simply no time to pause or, more worryingly, to give one pause.
This is American Pastoral’s main flaw: it’s a trompe l’oeil. It’s unable to make time for depth, so it’s forced to create the illusion of depth. Screaming and loudly crying are stand-ins for character introspection and investigation. Merry, who as a young girl loved her father and mother unconditionally, becomes a vituperative teenage terrorist quite literally with a flip of a burger patty. Occasionally spitting some extreme-left anti-Vietnam War fury and disappearing to attend off-screen rallies in New York is supposed to explain her radicalisation, but it does not a fully formed character make, despite Fanning’s best efforts.
Poor Dawn subsequently suffers a mental breakdown and fires invective at Swede, accusing him of ruining her life. However, this is left unexplored and worse, undermines several scenes that occur years later when she gets a facelift and embarks on an affair. Yes, it really does move at such a breezy pace.
Finally there’s Swede himself. McGregor feels very miscast. It’s hard to buy his diminutive frame belonging to a former star athlete and marine; a Jew adored and lionised by the narrator for his physical prowess and bravado. There is no muscled frame to be emaciated, no bravado to be humbled.
When Merry blows up a convenience store and then disappears, it supposedly marks the beginning of the end of Swede’s American Dream and nuclear family – less than subtly highlighted by a shot of the American flag gently waving as black smoke rises.
And yet, there’s no real radioactive fallout. Swede’s obsession with finding Merry is meant to be debilitating, but only seems to rear its head when some new evidence about her whereabouts comes up every few years.
Still, we’re told repeatedly that his life is purportedly falling apart around him, The narrator laments his initial thought that Swede had the perfect life, going on to say he was more wrong about the Swede than anyone else. But was he? Swede doesn’t carry himself like a man crippled by tragic events, yearning for the halcyon days of when he was ‘the Swede’ – when he had his nuclear family. If anything, he seems to be doing rather well: his business is profitable, he’s building a new house – bigger than the last – and attending pretentious art exhibitions.
It’s not a disintegration of the American Dream if it’s part-time. He’s not the tragic Willy Loman-esque figure we’re led to believe. Hell, he’s not even a post-lapsarian Biff. He’s the embellished Uncle Ben in Willy Loman’s mind: a successful man with no self-awareness and even less awareness of what he has lost. How can we have pity for a man such as this? How can anyone?
Despite its best efforts, American Pastoral is a clumsy, vapid treatment that never really manages to capture the essence of Roth’s searing ideas and narratives. At least it can take heart from the fact that it is by no means the first failed cinematic adaptation of a Philip Roth novel. Perhaps a successful adaptation is the modern day real-life American dream playing out right now. 2/5
For another tragically misfiring Philip Roth adaptation, check out our review of Indignation.