Much like his beloved New York Mets, the novels of Philip Roth have repeatedly frustrated the grandest hopes of many a fervent follower, at least as far as film is concerned. From Ernest Lehman to Robert Benton, Barry Levinson, and most recently James Schamus, the author’s peculiar brew of existential angst has simply proven too elusive for filmmakers great and small.
And so it proves for first-time director Ewan McGregor, whose “American Pastoral” tackles the greatest of Roth’s late-period works with obvious admiration and attempted fidelity, only to see the beating heart of the book slip further and further from his grasp with every scene. Groping for grand tragedy and finding only actorly melodrama, shooting for political contrarianism but landing instead on reactionary conventionalism, “American Pastoral” is as flat and strangled as its source is furious and expansive.
In addition to directing, McGregor also stars as the ill-fated protagonist Seymour “Swede” Levov, and the director has done his lead actor no favors here. In the novel, Swede is a figure of immense tragic irony — a Greatest Generation Newark Jew who successfully passes as an upper-class North Atlantic WASP, only for the transition to destroy him in ways he never could have predicted, when the “indigenous American berserk” of the late 1960s turns all of his accomplishments into indictments, his humanist liberalism into weakness. Yet McGregor’s Swede feels neither fish nor fowl, a bland everyman who’s neither recognizably Semitic nor recognizably all-American, and this fundamental miscasting sets the tone for the rest of the film.
A high school sports hero in his Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic, Swede grows up to marry a shiksa beauty queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), move his family to a Norman Rockwell-esque farm while still running his father’s glove factory in Newark, and sire a precocious daughter named Merry (played as a young child with effortless agility by Hannah Nordberg, and as a teenager with effortful commitment by Dakota Fanning). Sensitive, too smart for her own good, and afflicted with a severe stutter, Merry grows up to become a 16-year-old radical obsessed with the horrors of the Vietnam War.
After one too many provocations, Swede forbids his daughter from traveling to New York on weekends to meet with her activist friends, advising her to bring her war home to their sleepy country town instead. Perhaps taking his advice too literally, Merry disappears into thin air on the same day that a bomb explodes in the town’s general store, killing the proprietor. As years go by, both Swede and Dawn struggle to deal with their nebulous grief: Swede searches tirelessly for his missing daughter, in whose innocence he desperately still wants to believe, while Dawn suffers a breakdown and finds solace in plastic surgery. Then, just as the dust has started to settle, Swede is visited by a figure claiming to know of Merry’s whereabouts, a psychological sadist in hippie clothing named Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry).
Aside from smoothing out the novel’s knotted chronology, adding a few moments of un-Rothian sentimentality, and excising the memorable deployment of a dinner fork, McGregor and scripter John Romano stay largely faithful to the book, including its modern-day framing device featuring Roth’s frequent alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn). And yet they seem to have gotten the formula backwards: The Zuckerman scenes are clunky and meaningless without the freewheeling intricacies of the aging writer’s prose — had they been excised entirely from this film, the only victim would have been some rather dodgy old-age makeup — and the otherwise linear narrative structure misses the poignant juxtapositions (between the idyllic and nightmarish visions of both Merry and America itself) that allowed Roth’s novel to sing.
Which is a shame, particularly as this election season sees America on the verge of a different sort of indigenous berserk. Though certainly unsympathetic to the Aquarian era’s counter-cultural radicals, Roth’s novel is not anti-leftist. Rather, it’s anti-extremist, mourning the heartlessness of any movement that attacks systems without considering the actual living people who inhabit those systems, any cause that would fail to see the essential difference between a mild-mannered bourgeois businessman like Seymour (who is himself antiwar, and proud of paying his factory’s black employees a living wage), and the bloodthirsty imperialists dropping bombs on Vietnamese villagers. It’s a delicate balance that the novel maintains, and the film botches it almost entirely, giving us a vision of the antiwar movement that’s closer to the cartoonish extremes of “Forrest Gump” than anything else. (Right down to the groan-worthy use of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”)
Nonetheless, it’s Curry’s Rita, as the embodiment of this caricatured ’60s, who stands out most starkly from the rest of the cast, giving her scenes a jolt of wild, woolly unpredictability. That energy goes largely missing elsewhere, as McGregor allows his actors an admirable degree of freedom, yet neglects to give their emotions the proper framing. Connelly in particular supplies an actor’s workshop of solidly delivered scenes, but her character never really gains any sort of dimensionality. Peter Riegert offers some mild Borscht Belt shtick as Swede’s father, while Uzo Aduba, as his longtime secretary Vicky, comes the closest to bringing the best out of the leading man. As Newark explodes into civic unrest, Vicky and Swede argue over who will stay the night to protect the factory, eventually deciding to remain there together. Theirs is a scenario and a relationship rife with class and racial tensions, but the actors play those tensions subtly, carefully, internally, offering a teasing glimpse of what this film could have been.