The premiere of American Pastoral on the opening Friday of TIFF 2016 was an interesting event. McGregor introduced the film, bringing his co-stars on stage to explain how excited he was to have been given the chance to direct. His energy was contagious, and when they took their seats and the lights dimmed, there couldn’t have been a better atmosphere in which to take in a film.
Unfortunately, Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut is a great story told clumsily.
Despite a fantastic plot and a few truly great performances–most notably from McGregor himself as well as Dakota Fanning, who plays Merry, McGregor’s character’s troubled daughter–the film never quite finds an emotional rhythm.
The first act plays more like a montage. Beginning with an opening voiceover framing device and continuing on to awkwardly inform us of the passing of time by inserting cliched song choices and real footage from the time.
Adapted from Philip Roth’s 1997 novel, American Pastoral tells the story of Seymour ‘the Swede’ Levov. The Swede, played by McGregor, is a successful Jewish American businessman from Newark New Jersey. A star high-school athlete, the Swede embodies everything that is hopeful in the post-World War II America. Charming, popular, well meaning and youthful, he makes a wonderful life for himself and his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and their daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) on a small farm just outside of the city.
The meat of the story picks up in 1968 when Merry, now a troubled teen, begins to become heavily involved and influenced by New York City anti-war protestors in the wake of the Vietnam War. Merry’s involvement takes a dark turn and the rosey, hopeful America of the Swedes’ youth begins to crumble around him.
While the film didn’t connect with me on an emotional level, it’s absolutely not a failure by any means. My partner who accompanied me to the premiere enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s a film I’d heartily recommend to my parents (if that sort of criticism makes any sense). I don’t believe in trying to be an ‘objective’ film critic, because I think it’s a fool’s errand as well as being pretentious.
I haven’t read Philip Roth’s novel, but I read many reactions of “they’re adopting that into a movie? Good luck!” So as a first time director, Ewan McGregor might have just bitten off more than he was ready for. McGregor is by no means a bad director, just bland. I hope he gets the opportunity to do it again.
2 out of 5