This review is also up at Channel 24.
What it's about
Seymour “the Swede” Levov is the envy of his local Jewish community as he follows his years as the most popular kid in high school with an adult life that includes his taking over his father's massively successful clothing business and having seemingly the perfect family life with his (non-Jewish) beauty-pageant wife and doting daughter. As his daughter comes of age and the 1960s rage on, however, the Swede's perfect life comes crumbling down.
What we thought
The acclaimed, Pulitzer-prize winning novel on which this film is based is one of those “classic” novels that utterly defeated me. I made it halfway through before the sheer misanthropic self-indulgence of Philip Roth's magnum opus had me throw up my hands in defeat and turn towards something a bit easier to swallow – something like War and Peace, perhaps (though, not really). Even after having read just half of American Pastoral, though, one thing was very clear: you'd have to be clinically insane to try and adapt it into a film.
Enter Ewan McGregor, who not only decided to stretch his sanity to the limits by tackling a book that was almost all internalized self-examination and almost no plot, but decided to make it his directorial debut along the way. The result, predictably, is a failure but it's an honourable, ambitious failure that is never quite the disaster it so obviously should have been. It's also far more accessible and enjoyable than its source novel - not to mention a whole lot shorter – if, admittedly, nowhere near as deep.
The good stuff first. The acting is on a nearly uniformly high level with Jennifer Connelly, in particular, delivering a knock out performance as a woman who starts off the film struggling to transcend the vapid image that comes with her beauty queen status and ends the film having experienced the kind of character arc that would take your average premium cable TV show several seasons to go through. McGregor is arguably the weak link as he is somewhat miscast in the role (though, interestingly, he was cast as the film's lead actor long before he took the directorial reins) and he, once again, struggles somewhat with his American accent but his natural charisma and likeability goes some way towards making the film Swede a whole lot easier to spend time with than his novel counterpart.
Like the novel, the film is also fundamentally and inescapably thematically rich as its examination of the cultural wars of the 1960s offers plenty to chew on, as does its complex characterization and fearlessly penetrating look at the American Dream. It's even not unsuccessful on a purely emotional level as the exasperating ugliness of the novel is leavened tremendously by its engaging cast who bring real humanity to their characters. And, again, even if McGregor isn't exactly a perfect fit for the Swede, he does quite a lot of the heavy lifting in bringing much needed warmth to the film with a character that is undoubtedly flawed but is clearly thoroughly decent to his core – even if his particular brand of old fashioned decency is threatened by the far more high-minded liberalism and social consciousness of the 1960s.
What is odd about both the Swede's basic goodness and, even more so, the film clearly taking the side of the “establishment” over the counter-culture is that it seems utterly at odds with Philip Roth's standing as one of the counter-culture's leading enfant terribles, with his sexually-charged debut novel, Portnoy's Complaint, being met with righteous indignation by exactly the sort of people with whom the film seems to empathise the most. It's possible that his stance changed considerably by the time the much more recent American Pastoral came out but is seems unlikely. Either way, for something that ostensibly is supposed to be a thorough examination of the time period, the film feels incredibly one-sided.
The biggest problem with American Pastoral, though, is that (like the novel, as far as I'm concerned) it is more than a little dull. For all that is packs some emotional punches along the way and for all that it is mostly intriguing, its basic story is ploddingly paced and really only fitfully engaging. It's also anything but effortless in its telling as the clear reverence that McGregor has for the novel results in a film that is staid and cautious where it should be full-blooded and vividly alive. It's a film that's much easier to admire, basically, than it is to like. That's not half bad for an adaptation of such a difficult novel but it doesn't make for the must fulfilling cinematic experience.