“America had won the war. The Depression was over.” Thus, within the first minute of “American Pastoral,” the voice of Philip Roth‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel becomes that of an elderly spouse explaining the plot of a movie in a crowded theater. Directed by Ewan McGregor, who also stars as Newark, N.J., resident Seymour “Swede” Levov, the lead-footed version of Roth’s book is an object lesson in the perils of adaptation, a movie that neither expands our understanding of its source nor stands on its own.
It’s almost hard to know where to begin the list of what “American Pastoral” gets wrong, but given that the least one expects from an actor’s directorial debut is sensitive, well-tuned performances, it’s astonishing the extent to which McGregor and his costars, including Jennifer Connelly (as Swede’s beauty-queen wife Dawn) and Dakota Fanning (as their daughter Merry) telegraph every last emotion like they’re acting in semaphore. Their performances are so deliberate and overworked they might as well have the script tattooed on their faces.
Roth’s novel, a kind of fictional history that may or may not have been imagined by his narrative alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, becomes, in McGregor’s clammy hands, yet another tiresome movie about The Sixties, a generational gumbo whose attempts at sweep and scope only underline the production’s pinched imagination.
Will a privileged teenager rail against her parents’ middle-class ways and decorate her room with tie-dyed peace signs? Will her parents tell her to turn that damn music down? Will Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” signify once more the onset of turbulent times? After a while, you know the answers before you can formulate the questions.
“American Pastoral” keeps the novel’s framing device, with Zuckerman (David Strathairn) at his 40th reunion recalling the Swede’s glory days as a high school athlete, then learning of the dark times that followed after. But the movie loses almost instantly the idea that this is a story being told, filtered through a writer’s consciousness rather than playing out exactly as it happened. Stripped of its ambiguities, the plot plays like boomer magnetic poetry: a little race riots here, an anti-war bombing there, a dash of sexual liberation and voilà! Cinematographer Martin Ruhe (“Control”) shoots the movie in somber, brown-on-brown tableaux, which only underlines the ponderousness of John Romano’s screenplay.
For a while, the Swede has it all: a prosperous glove-manufacturing business, inherited from his father (Peter Riegert), a loving daughter, a beautiful wife who doesn’t mind calling him “Swede.” But his daughter develops both a stutter and an incestuous crush on her old man, and as she grows into a young woman, her youthful hesitation matures into full-blown rage.
Ideally, her critique of her parents’ upper-class complacency, their claim to be “against the war” while living their comfortable lives in a leafy Republican suburb, ought to have some teeth, but as Merry’s written and as Fanning plays her, her anger is so out of control that every word comes out through gnashed teeth. She adopts, eventually fatally, the Weather Underground’s mantra to “bring the war home,” but the movie never brings it closer than a radio bulletin or a snatch of the evening news. It’s an abstraction inside an abstraction.
“American Pastoral” isn’t an embarrassment in the vein of so many other Roth films, but the first task of any literary adaptation is to justify its own existence. Why do we need a movie when we already have the book? (“Because it’s shorter” is not a good answer.) McGregor’s movie is a half-hearted transcript with no heart of its own, one that commits the ultimate sin of making you wonder whether the book it’s based on could possibly be any good in the first place.