American Nightmare

This Roth adaptation isn’t brilliant, but it’ll do

pastoral

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

 

American Pastoral
Roxy Theatre
Opens Friday 25
rating-3

Philip Roth’s literary oeuvre is famously known for being difficult to adapt to the big screen. The American stalwart enjoys jumping through time, inner monologues and references to previous novels, none of which translate well. The ratio of failed attempts to successful adaptations is probably five to one (although the recent Indignation was a solid one).

Given all that, first-time director Ewan McGregor couldn’t have picked a project with a higher level of difficulty: American Pastoral is Roth’s seminal novel, and a fairly well-known one.

McGregor doesn’t quite succeed, but is far from the disaster early reviews indicated.

McGregor takes the lead role, Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, an all-American athlete turned pillar of the community. In paper, Swede has it made — married to a beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly) and father to a brilliant child. Perfection, however, carries the seed of its own destruction: at the height of civil unrest in the ’60s, Swede’s daughter (Dakota Fanning) becomes a radical — and the main suspect in a post office bombing.

American Pastoral has two things going for it: solid casting and the strength of the source material. Connelly embodies the concept of shiksa to perfection, and delivers chilling insights about pretty girls and the male gaze. Fanning is also solid as the stuttering, rebellious Merry, whose misguided idealism costs her dearly. David Strathairn is a great choice for Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s recurring alter ego: bitter, but forever curious.

Some strong material falls by the wayside, but for the most part, McGregor’s judgement is sound. Many ideas are introduced just to go undeveloped (beauty affects the social order, revolutions can be easily co-opted), but that’s a predictable problem when turning a dense novel into a two-hour film.

If nothing else, American Pastoral may inspire you to pick up the source material. Counts it as a win.