Directed by Ewan McGregor
Starring Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning
If you've seen the trailer for American Pastoral, the promised film looks dark, mysterious, and traditional arthouse fare. With haunting music and stilted images that showcased the coming attraction's impeccable images, this was to be a love story to American literature as much as a beautiful drama from a first time director. Instead, Ewan McGregor's debut behind the camera is a valiant effort that never pays off.
The film opens in present day as an aged class meets at their old school for a reunion. David Stratharin walks the halls, reminiscing of the good ol' days and, especially, the important role fellow classmate, Seymour "Swede" Levov (McGregor), played in not only the school but the folklore of the town. Thus begins a long, harrowing flashback to the rise and fall of this hard-working man and his beautiful, beauty queen wife (Jennifer Connelly).
The meat of the story revolves around their perfect marriage and the seemingly ironic stutter that plagues their only child, daughter Merry (played as an older teen and adult by Dakota Fanning). Her childhood is a mixture of heartbreak and therapy, mixed with Levov's fatherly attempts to help her combat her struggles. As she grows older, Merry develops a care, in the simplest terms, for the rebellious political movements of the times and, before long, a local post office has been bombed, Merry is missing and is the main subject, and mysterious events allude both Mr. and Mrs. Levov on the search for the truth and their ultimate happiness.
At its heart, American Pastoral serves as a testament to the unconditional love of family, which, in some way, is the core property of Americanism. Set amidst a troubling political landscape, there are moments when the historic images displayed on screen are far too familiar to our own current political climate. A set of scenes which take place in the factory Levov manages during the nights of the strongest political protests, the film finds its footing as a moving drama, highlighted by small glimpses of Uzo Aduba's always reliable acting chops.
Everything about American Pastoral looks just as it should, thanks in part to the costumes by Lindsay McKay and the cinematography of Martin Ruhe. The latter feels as if it were partially ripped from the films of the same era in which the movie is placed. But, looks aren't everything.
McGregor may have been better off wearing only the directing hat. As Levov, he overacts on more than one occasion, allowing his performance to go too melodramatic too often, instead of hardening in a quiet, subtle, torn way that would have been way more effective. The same goes for Connelly. The Oscar-winning actress cries her eyes out, but it never feels necessary. It's as if there are pieces of the source material, Philip Roth's novel, that didn't make the cut.
Disjointed almost from the very beginning, American Pastoral is a frustrating movie to watch. It's cast alone is the kind of pedigree that makes it fun to go to the movies, but the movie rarely knows what genre in which it's trying to fit. The only thing that marginally works is Fanning's portrayal of the older Merry. She gives it her all, especially in the third act, as Merry has matured in ways that are hard to explain.
Runtime: 2h 6min