Going into American Pastoral, all I knew was that this was Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut in which he plays a father whose life is ruined by his daughter’s political actions in the 60s. Not a groundbreaking premise, but when an actor has been around as long as McGregor and worked with as many great directors as he has, it’s safe to assume he’s learned a thing or two. In the same way you can see the influence working with Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers had on George Clooney’s directing, I was hoping that McGregor had some Boyle in his bones, or at least some Burton on the brain.
Well, it’s been three days now and I still can’t get over how bad American Pastoral was. Here are just a few reasons why.
We open with David Strathairn as a novelist attending a class reunion. He goes on about high school hero Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov (McGregor), before running into Seymour’s brother (Rupert Evans) at the reunion. Strathairn’s narration sounds like something from a Stand By Me spoof and the makeup Evans wears to age his appearance make him look he just walked out of a present day scene from Back to the Future. We learn that Seymour has very recently passed away and apparently the writer is the only one who doesn’t know what became of him after his carefree high school years. Thus begins a nonsensical framing device for the story in which these characters play no part, and has almost nothing to do with Seymour’s eventual death.
Levov and his wife (Jennifer Connelly) had one child, Merry, a smart girl with a stutter whose precociousness turned to radicalism in her teenage years as the country faced issues like the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. I mention the stutter only because it seems to be dwelled on a fair amount and is one of the most difficult things for an actor to pull off. Dakota Fanning does her best as the older Merry, but it’s still tough to watch, like most of the movie. When Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” kicks in just as Seymour is realizing where his daughter’s interests lie, it’s the cue to the audience that there will be nothing subtle in this movie.
Merry disappears after a bomb she may have planted leaves a man dead and the rest of the film is Seymour obsessively looking for her. His interest in the matter outlasts the FBIs, his wife’s, and ours. The source material is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth that I must assume had some kind of payoff, something that was sorely lacking in this film.
After a series of several anticlimaxes that just feel like one sour note after another, you’re left wondering what it is exactly that you just watched, and why was David Strathairn in it?
Saturday Sept. 10, 10:00 am @ Visa Screening Room