Film Review: American Pastoral

A two-dimensional reworking of Philip Roth’s novel that reduces a complex story to a Lifetime movie about a seriously troubled young woman who has become a terrorist-fugitive in the late ’60s and the tormented father trying to bring her home.
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In Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, the protagonist Seymour “Swede” Levov is described as a Nordic-looking Jew, thus the nickname. Nonetheless, he is Jewish. Ethnic-identity politics—the whole sticky issue of “otherness”—are central to Roth novels. Especially when they’re set, as they often are, in working-class mid-century Newark, New Jersey, where Jews struggled to achieve a life for themselves and their families, and lived within self-contained enclaves in large part because they were not welcome elsewhere. Being Jewish is not incidental. It’s pivotal.

The actor cast as Swede doesn’t have to be Jewish, but he must resemble a Jew, however vaguely. The Scottish actor Ewan McGregor as Swede is just plain jarring. Brit Rupert Evans is equally miscast as Swede’s brother Jerry. They may be siblings, but neither is a Levov.

Ethnic casting is a slippery slope. There’s the danger of confirming cruel stereotypes on the one hand (think Woody Allen) or going for political correctness (at the expense of plausibility) on the other. Perhaps the creative team here thought casting ur-WASPs as Jews was flattering.

For getting it right, check out James Schamus’ Indignation, a recently released film also based on a Roth novel that was spot-on in its casting. Indeed, it’s one of the few Roth-inspired films that scored in every department.

The overriding problem with American Pastoral is that screenwriter John Romano and McGregor (making his directorial debut) simply don’t grasp Roth’s universe, who his characters are, and where they’re coming from, culturally or psychologically. The casting missteps foreshadow the flat performances. McGregor’s Swede has blandness to spare. Swede is no Everyman.

Obviously correct ethnic casting guarantees nothing. Consider Peter Riegert’s spin on Lou Levov, Swede’s crusty, hard-working, Jewish-minded father whose insularity stems from personal experience and history. Remember, part of the story takes place in the almost immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. When Lou unpleasantly challenges Swede’s Gentile wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) on whether she plans to raise his grandchildren as Jews, he’s expressing fear—fear of loss, fear of displacement—coupled with rage and pain. He is a contradictory figure. But in Riegert’s (usually capable) hands, Lou emerges as a slightly annoying but ultimately benign buffoon right out of a Borsht Belt routine.

Translating Roth to the screen is always daunting; with American Pastoral, it’s probably not doable at all, largely because the novel’s complex panoramic narrative emerges from multiple perspectives, each shaped by the distorting lens of memory and imagination.

The narrator is fictional writer Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), Roth’s alter ego (appearing in nine of Roth’s novels), who knew Swede mostly through reputation and as the older brother of his best friend Jerry (who has his own ambivalent recollections). Like everyone else, Zuckerman was fascinated by Swede—all the more so in retrospect. Swede was the envied Golden Boy of the community—a brilliant athlete married to a beautiful woman—who was destined for a glorious future in the upscale bucolic New Jersey community he called home. Tragedy was not in the cards.

It is the late ’60s and Swede’s radicalized daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) has set off a bomb in the local post office, killing the postmaster. She becomes a fugitive and disappears as Swede’s wife unravels, his marriage disintegrates and he spends years tracking Merry down, only to find her living in mind-numbing filth and squalor.

In the novel, Zuckerman’s non-linear account that moves backwards in time is an amalgam of his conversations with Swede and Jerry, and his own impressions and creative powers as a novelist who fills in the narrative gaps, most notably with an ambiguous mystery woman (Valorie Curry) who directs Swede to his daughter’s hideout. She may be Merry’s co-conspirator, an FBI informant, a hooker, or she may not exist at all except as Zuckerman’s poorly defined literary invention.

American Pastoral explores among other topics the impossibility of really knowing another human being and the nature of destiny, its randomness and predictability. It’s also a profoundly political novel about the interplay of middle-class liberal parents with their deeply disenfranchised child who becomes a terrorist during a turbulent era that was spawned in the wake of ’50s and early-’60s optimism and affluence. 

Clearly a movie version needs to be pared down and focused, but what remains in this instance is a two-dimensional Lifetime script about troubled parents with a troubled daughter living in troubled times, with endless songs of the era serving as its soundtrack.

Bookending the film, Zuckerman makes two brief appearances that are useless and klutzy. In the opening scene, he’s at a 45th high-school reunion in the mid-’90s, staring at photographs of the legendary Swede lining the wall and reminiscing with Jerry, who says Swede has died and the funeral is slated for the following day. In the final scene, Zuckerman surfaces at Swede’s funeral.

The symmetry and, worse, sentimental film ending (which is not being revealed here) is a stunning violation of Roth’s worldview and sensibility but the perfect coda for this thoroughly misconceived cinematic exercise.

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