A Troubling “American Pastoral”
By Skip Sheffield
If you have read any of Phil Roth’s work, you know you will be in for some sex and suffering. In “American Pastoral” you get both, plus some bitter laughs.
“American Pastoral” is the debut as director of Ewan McGregor, the Scottish actor who also stars as sports hero and all-American boy, Seymour “Swede” Levov; a fair-haired Jew who passes as goy. In a fairy-tale romance, Swede married a gorgeous former Miss New Jersey, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly). Swede worked for his gruff father Gus (Peter Riegert, bringing much-needed comic relief) in the family glove factory in Newark, NJ. Swede became so prosperous he bought a small farm 30 miles west of Newark to indulge his wife, who contented herself raising cows and tending her house and gardens.
The story begins in 1968 with the Vietnam War raging. The Levuvs have a beautiful blond, blue-eyed daughter named Merrie, played by Ocean James at age 8, Hannah Nordberg at 12 and Dakota Fanning as a teenager.
The narrative flashes forward to 1991 and the 40th anniversary of Swede’s high school graduation. Philip Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) is introduced. For those familiar with Roth, Nathan Zuckerman has grown up in the fiction of the author; from bumbling teenager in “Portnoy’s Complaint” to the aging, broken character of Swede. Nathan has not come to attend his high school reunion but to attend the funeral of its star. Through a series of flashbacks we learn how his fate came to be. It is not a pretty story. That’s Philip Roth.
“American Pastoral” is an actor’s showcase for its leads. No one emotes more deeply than the star himself, though Jennifer Connelly is a close second. Dakota Fanning is rather flat and one-dimensional as rebellious Merrie while Uzo Abduba is warm and solid as Swede’s loyal right-hand woman at the factory. The liveliest (and sexiest) character is Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry), a renegade hippie friend of Merrie who provides the story with its requisite sex scene.
No two-hour movie can capture the historical, psychological and sociological intricacies of Roth’s 1997, which won him the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. Screenwriter John Romano (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) has done his best to whittle down Roth’s sprawling story, but those who read the book are bound to be a bit disappointed- but good try. Philip Roth has retired from writing after 31 books. We can only appreciate what he has accomplished.