2016, R, 108 min. Directed by Ewan McGregor. Starring Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegert, Molly Parker, Rupert Evans.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 11, 2016
“The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: We’re wrong.” Pull just about anybody’s copy of American Pastoral off the shelf, and likely this page is dog-eared, and not just because the passage rings dispiritingly true about the human condition. It’s also a potent précis of the whole book’s chewing over of identity – personal, political, public-facing, self-denying.
In Philip Roth’s novel, the “getting them wrong” idea comes courtesy of the aging novelist (and regular Roth alter ago) Nathan Zuckerman as he reflects on his one-time childhood hero, Seymour Levov. The movie uses Zuckerman more sparingly – he’s just the bookend narrator, carted out to introduce the story of Seymour, and then usher us to the exit.
Football hero, World War II vet, and model of decency, Seymour (played by McGregor) is nicknamed the Swede on account of his fair looks and how “lightly” (as the book puts it) he wears his Jewishness. (Troublingly, this film adaptation wears the subject of Jewishness even more lightly yet.) When the Swede returns home from the war, he marries a gentile and former Miss America contestant named Dawn (Connelly). The Levovs chase their American Dream to the suburbs of Newark, where they have a child, Merry, who develops a stutter – her psychoanalyst says it’s in reaction to Dawn’s pageant good looks. Merry feels deeply and obsesses easily; after she watches the 1963 self-immolation of a Buddhist monk on the nightly news, she crawls into bed between her parents, hiccuping back sobs. Hugging her from both sides, her parents share a look of worry – and bewilderment. They don’t know it yet, but those sobs mark the first stirrings of a radicalization that will upend their lives once teenager Merry (Fanning) vows to “bring the war home” by way of a homemade bomb.
Problem is, the filmmakers seem just as bewildered as to how to distill Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winner, which is rightly shortlisted in any conversation about a (if not the) Great American novel. The adaptation, by screenwriter John Romano and McGregor, debuting as a director, roughly sticks to the plot points of the novel but sheds its nuance, and reduces Zuckerman’s role to a mere background information delivery system. The film more or less gets what American Pastoral is about – a guy who lives a charmed life, until he doesn’t – but not what it means, or the significance in who is telling the story. It rejects the novel’s more sophisticated narrative of an imagined history – Zuckerman’s invented account of the Swede’s inner life – for a straightforward and ultimately unilluminating portrait of generational upheaval in midcentury America.
“That’s how we know we’re alive: We’re wrong.” The filmmakers move this crucial passage to the end of the film, but lose its epiphanic purpose. In those eight words, Roth signaled tension and release; over the course of 108 minutes, this film conveys little of either.