tv + film by Philbert Dy

‘American Pastoral’ Loses Sight of Its Source Material’s Greatness

An otherwise noble effort oversimplifies and misses the point completely.

NBHD movie 2 ticketsAmerican Pastoral adpats the much-celebrated Philip Roth novel of the same name. It mainly tells the story of Seymore “Swede” Levov, a Jewish man in Newark who seems to be living a picture-perfect life. He was a football star, a war hero, and he returned to America with a beauty queen bride (Jennifer Connelly) waiting for him. He inherits his dad’s glove factory, and lives in a home in the idyllic countryside. But the 60s roll around, and amidst the various tensions of that decade, his rebellious teenage daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) gets involved in counterculture, the young woman looking to break out of the bonds of her comfortable life.Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 4.49.45 PMThe plot properly begins with Merry disappearing, and seemingly being involved in a terrorist act in their town. The film mainly tracks Swede’s efforts to find his daughter, while also documenting his wife’s subsequent descent into depression. The film, like the novel, is about the cracks in the foundation of the American dream as conceived by the Greatest Generation. They returned home from a global war where they were clearly the heroes. And then, as the decades passed, as they settled into the comfort of their middle class lives, they would find that the idea of America wasn’t as simple as they thought it was.Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 4.50.28 PMIt’s a worthy theme, but a lot has been lost in translation. The film basically reduces the novel to its plot, excising any of the period details and historical context that gave so much life to the narrative. Simplification is often a necessary part of adaptation, but this is one of those cases where the impulse to streamline the narrative genuinely harms the overall message. The film reduces the narrative to a point where no one seems human any more, and it just becomes a strange parable of how counterculture ruined America.Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 4.54.39 PMThe film seems to assume that audiences will already be deeply familiar with the complex set of events that was changing the American landscape at the time. It doesn’t do a whole lot to really try and capture the rising tensions, both racial and cultural, that would forever leave a mark in the greater American psyche. In place of a nuanced depiction of a the time and place that all this was going on, the film uses on-the-nose musical cues of the era to indicate the general feeling of the setting. And in place of complex characters coping with the changing times in their own, specific ways, the film assembles a lineup of empty ciphers meant to represent broad ideas concerning the generational divide.Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 4.53.18 PMThe film is directed by Ewan McGregor, and like many actor-directors, he mainly plays the scenes pretty straight, keeping the focus on the performances. The excellent cast benefits from this direction, but the material does not. There isn’t enough effort put into visualizing the complexity of the text, and the actors, as good as they are, aren’t able to fully embody the multitudes present in this narrative. As the lead actor, McGregor is purely binary. He is either the happy portrait of American perfection, or he is the put-upon older man unable to cope with the rapid changes in his life. Like everything else in this movie, it just feels like we’re missing all the vital parts of the performance.Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 4.52.08 PMAmerican Pastoral is a noble enough effort. There does seem to be genuine affection for the material, and real effort put into trying to fit the novel into a watchable form. But one may also pick out a severe misunderstanding of what made the original novel so good. In stripping the context from this story, in concentrating solely on the travails of this one man, the film loses sight of the themes beyond the plot, and the beauty that lies in the margins.

Philbert Dy
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.
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