Oct 26, 2016

American Pastoral

I find Ewan McGregor utterly charming and I was rooting for his first directing foray, of American Pastoral, based on the novel by Philip Roth. Alas, pretty much everything goes awry: bad casting, a stiff script, and an equally stiff directorial job.
McGregor plays Seymour "The Swede" Levov, a Jewish Wunderman: a legendary athlete, blond, and blue-eyed all-American Jew in the fifties. He marries a non-Jewish beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly) and seems to have an idyllic life. His daughter Merry (a very good Dakota Fanning) has a stutter and soon reveals a subversive streak. As her therapist intimates in the movie, being the spawn of perfection (athlete + beauty queen) must be hard. She is a teenager in the late 60s, outraged by the war in Vietnam and seduced by revolutionaries. She bombs a post office and destroys her parents' lives.
It's a great story, but in the translation to film much has been lost, mainly sharpness of observation, and other details that make the characters complicated. Philip Roth revels in human contradiction, to say the least, but this movie is too prim.
As with Natalie Portman's directorial debut and other movies by actors, being a good actor has nothing to do with being a good director. Directors bring scripts to life and make them look real and authentic. This is very hard to do. The scenes in American Pastoral feel lifeless, even though the actors are all doing their utmost. The pace is not glacial; there's no pace. It's dispiriting since it is obviously a serious effort.
People of color complain of whitewashing in movies. I think Jews can be added to the mix. You don't necessarily have to be Jewish to play a Jew, but it adds authenticity. McGregor is a good actor but he ain't Jewish or from Newark, no matter how blond his hair or blue his eyes. Liev Schreiber could be a better fit for the role. David Strathairn is too virtuous for the role of Nathan Zuckerman, narrator and Roth's alter ego. Except for the great Peter Riegert as The Swede's dad, the whole thing feels ersatz. Stories where people age dramatically are tricky, and the makeup job here is unconvincing. There's a scene at the beginning of the movie between Strathairn and an actor who is obviously a much younger man caked with old man makeup. It's hard to get invested in the story with such distractions.
However, one scene packs a punch. A young, arrogant revolutionary brat called Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) tells Levov that she knows where Merry is hiding. Rita screams at Seymour all the terrible things she assumes he is: a bourgeois pig, an all-star bully, his wife a vapid beauty queen; his family of glove makers, exploiters of the workers. None of it is remotely true. The ease with which ideology paints people with a wide brush comes alive in this exchange. It's good shorthand for the awful combination of youthful arrogance and dogmatism, for the simplistic zeal of revolutionaries, and for a chasm of incomprehension between generations that has not been as keenly felt at any other time in American history as it was in that turbulent period.
American Pastoral, is, among other things, about the tension between the desire to be generic (Jews who yearned to assimilate seamlessly into the American dream when that dream erupted in flames) and their impossibility to be generic. This film version is a generic movie that defeats its own purpose.

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