If it sometimes feels like the world is ending in 2016, take comfort in the fact that people have thought that at plenty of different points in history. The 1960s were rife with that “America is dying” mentality, and Phillip Roth’s 1997 novel “American Pastoral” explored how that turmoil destroyed a family. Ewan McGregor adapts the novel for his directorial debut to mixed effect: The film is beautiful and occasionally poignant, but it lacks understanding.
At his 45th high school reunion, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) catches up with his old friend Jerry (Rupert Evans), who tells him that his older brother, Seymour or “The Swede” (McGregor), has died. The Swede was their golden boy. He married beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and had a daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning), but things began to unravel as his daughter’s political radicalism consumed their lives.
McGregor, Connelly and Fanning each turn in affecting performances. Connelly essentially reconstructs her character toward the end of the movie, changing Dawn’s mannerism and voice ever so slightly to sell the trauma she’s been through. McGregor pushes a father’s desperation to the point of obsession, cutting deep, and as a director, he effectively builds tension in scenes where bombs go off (literally and figuratively).
The high school reunion framing device might have worked well in Roth’s novel, but it completely fails here. A movie is not meant to be dictated to you, especially not by a character that brings nothing to the table. As a director, McGregor sometimes scratches the surface of something big but then bails before he can get into it — most notably in a scene between the Swede and Merry’s therapist.
But the real issue here is that neither McGregor nor John Romano’s script understands “American Pastoral’s” female characters. Both Merry and Dawn are furious at different parts of the film, but we never get a sense of why that allows us to empathize with them. “Who is she?” Dawn asks of Merry early on. The point of the film is that you can never really know, but “American Pastoral” doesn’t even try to answer that question.
Gorgeously dark with heartbreaking moments, “American Pastoral” isn’t smart enough to have the prestige factor it’s clearly going for.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Valorie Curry, Uzo Aduba, Rupert Evans, Peter Riegert, Molly Parker, David Strathairn.
Director: Ewan McGregor.
Screenwriter: John Romano. Based on the novel by Philip Roth.
A Lionsgate Films release. Running time: 108 minutes. Vulgar language, strong sexual content, brief violence. Playing at area theaters.