PLOT In the late 1960s, an all-American father learns than his teenage daughter has become a murderous revolutionary. Based on the novel by Philip Roth.
CAST Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning
RATED R (sexuality, language and adult content)
PLAYING AT Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington; Manhasset Cinemas, and Raceway 10 in Westbury
BOTTOM LINE McGregor’s directorial debut is a well-crafted drama but lacks the depth of Roth’s masterful book.
In “American Pastoral,” Philip Roth’s 1997 novel about the insanity of the 1960s, a successful businessman wonders why his daughter has violently rejected everything he worked so hard to give her. Roth wasn’t the first author to ask such a question, but he dug deeper into his theme than most, using American Jews as his subjects and his home state of New Jersey as a setting. The result was one of the richest, most insightful books ever written about one of the most-examined decades in U.S. history.
Oddly, the screen adaptation of “American Pastoral” comes from a Scottish actor, Ewan McGregor, making his directorial debut. McGregor nicely captures the book’s emotional power, delivering a well-crafted drama about a shattered family. What “American Pastoral” lacks, though, is something that may lie beyond McGregor’s reach: Roth’s native-born, bone-deep American-ness.
McGregor also plays Seymour “The Swede” Levov, blue-eyed athlete, World War II Marine and heir to his father’s glove-making empire. As if that weren’t enough, says his old high school classmate and our narrator, Nathan Zuckerman (David Straithairn), Seymour also married Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), an Irish-Catholic knockout. “A shiksa,” Nathan says in awe. “The Swede had done it.”
The Swede’s perfect life crumbles when his daughter, Merry (a serviceable Dakota Fanning), transforms from a smart, spirited girl into a rhetoric-spouting terrorist who bombs a local post office, killing its proprietor. The Swede, who once had all the answers, now has only questions. Was Merry brainwashed? Did her childhood stutter exacerbate her problems? Could this all be her parents’ fault?
As an actor, McGregor can’t quite place the Swede — he doesn’t feel Jewish or Jersey — but as a director he has a confident and considered touch. He’s also blessed with a fine screenplay by John Romano, which artfully lathes Roth’s dense novel into the shape of a feature film. Still, that means omitting dozens of pages of New Jersey history, Levov family lore, even glove-making techniques — essentially, the sweat-equity in an American dream that Merry chose to destroy. McGregor’s movie is a well-painted pastoral, but it never feels fully American.