American Pastoral

Year: 2016
Production Co: Lakeshore Entertainment
Director: Ewan McGregor
Writer: John Ramano/Philip Roth
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Molly Parker, Samantha Mathis, David Strathairn

The first thing I thought when this movie ended was what a weird project it was to be Ewan McGregor's debut directorial effort. I still can't work out what kind if kinship a 45-year-old Scot felt for a novel about a tumultuous period in America's history by one of the country's most prestigious novelists, and judging by the end product, McGregor either didn't understand it as much as he thinks he did, Phillip Roth's book was never going to translate successfully to film, or McGregor's just not a very good director.

He plays all American guy Seymour 'Swede' Levov, married to the local beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) in his New Jersey hometown, inheriting a successful manufacturing business and with life seemingly his for the taking.

When he and Dawn have their daughter Merry (Hannah Nordberg), life only gets more perfect. It's the dawn of the political upheavals of the civil rights movement, but Swede and Dawn don't have too much trouble protecting Merry from the horrors outside from behind their white picket fenced life.

When she becomes a young woman, however (in the shape of Dakota Fanning), things sour. Merry has been taken in by the civil rights movement – at home she's moody and hateful of her parents' bourgeois life, locking herself in her room to play loud protest music and papering her walls with anti-establishment motifs.

She also sneaks off to New York to hang around friends she says are fellow revolutionaries but who Swede and Dawn suspect are just layabout troublemakers getting high and romanticising their resistance.

One day Merry doesn't come home at all, and it sparks off a years-long search where Swede never gives up looking for her. First it seems like she's fallen in with some scary types and decided to cast off her past, then he slowly gets the feeling they're holding her captive.

And at about that point the story just peters out. It might have been handled differently in the book, but when Swede's years-long detective effort pays off in this film, it's a complete non-event. In fact the next time I saw Merry I wanted to slap her across the face no less so than the time years before when she abandoned her family.

I'd be interested to see the point of view from which the book is written – the movie seems to be about Swede's simply because he's the main character, but after all the agony Merry puts her parents through spending years wondering if she's even still alive, the movie seems to think we're supposed to empathise with her.

All it did was remind me of all the other movies where teenagers think life is so hard and their idiot parents just don't understand, when their idiot parents have actually been slaving away in the background making sure there's food on the table and a roof over everyone's head.

It felt like a long movie, but that might just be the multiple subplots that went in every possible direction, none of them ever coalescing into a complete whole. It has all the hallmarks of a prestige drama with something to say, but whatever it's saying is impossible to discern.

It might have just been a story about the shattering of the Norman Rockwell-tinged ideal of the post-war period, but it seemed a strange time, place and set of circumstances with which to explore it (and one which didn't do the political machinations of the time any justice).

It's also bookended with a completely redundant device of Swede's younger brother's best friend (David Strathairn) attending a school reunion and hearing the story of what happened from his equally jaded friend. Maybe in the book the character was a cipher for Roth himself, but here it's just a waste of the running time.

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