American Pastoral Directed by Ewan McGregor

American Pastoral Directed by Ewan McGregor
Courtesy of TIFF
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With his directorial debut, Ewan McGregor has unwittingly made the year's most tragic disaster movie. American Pastoral is an adaptation of Philip Roth's classic novel of the same name, a book that many have said was unfilmable. They were right. 

American Pastoral is this year's reminder that the Academy Awards aren't the only brass being handed out during Oscar season. The film opens with narration from Norman, a childhood friend of McGregor's Seymour "Swede" Levov. Played by David Straitharn, Norman is a fine enough narrator, but his scenes feel unnecessary and belaboured — he walks through his old high school, introducing the Swede as a sports hero and legendary popular kid before meeting up with Swede's brother (Rupert Evans, wearing fantastically awful old man makeup that droops and glistens and steals every scene it's in). We learn that the Swede has died, then we start to watch his life unfold.

The son of a glove factory operator (Peter Riegert), the Swede is a quintessential mid-century man who seemingly has it all — a trophy wife in Dawn (Jennifer Connolly), an adorable blonde daughter in Merry (first played by Hannah Nordberg, then Dakota Fanning) and a beautiful plot of land in a quaint American town. 

As Merry grows up, however, she begins to reveal some strange quirks. In addition to a stutter, she has a strangely obsessive relationship with her father. In one gasp-inducing scene, a pre-pubescent Merry asks her father to make out with him in her truck. He notices that her dress strap has fallen down her shoulder, and he hesitates before yelling at her. You will shudder, profoundly.  

As she gets older, Merry's resentment for her parents buds and grows. Once she starts hanging out with some hip New York activists who get her riled up about the Vietnam War, she begins to hate any and all authority. Frustrated by her anger, McGregor finally pulls Merry aside and tells her that real change starts at home — taking the advice too literally, she decides to blow up the local post office. Now on the lam, she occasionally communicates with the Swede through fellow anarchist Rita (Valorie Curry, who does her best despite her half-written character). The Swede spends the next few years in search of her, and the wait starts to feel like it's happening in real-time. By the time viewers reach the film's stupid conclusion, you'll wish you had died in the post office explosion.

Ewan McGregor is an undeniably talented and charming man, but a capable director he is not. In fact, American Pastoral often seems like it doesn't have a director at all; actors often hang in pregnant silences, like they're confused about what's going on. 

Jennifer Connolly and Peter Riegert are decent enough as the Swede's respective wife and father, but watching an actor successfully act in this sort of movie is more jarring than watching them fail. For  much of the film, Ewan McGregor talks in '50s diner speak and grins with a wide Pleasantville smile despite whatever's going on, as if he's been drugged or lobotomized. Then he'll start yelling. 

Dakota Fanning is absolutely offensive with her portrayal of the Swede's daughter Merry. It's bad enough that she's an irksome and poorly drawn character, but Fanning's delivery of her speech impediment sounds like a high school bully making fun of Merry for having a stutter.

To give McGregor credit, the film occasionally looks moderately nice when on location. That said, its interior sets seem like they were built for a PBS family show (Wishbone, anyone?) or a mid-level theatre company's period play.  

American Pastoral is said to be a story about America, and that's 100 percent true, but for the wrong reasons. A bloated, confounding, lazy and ultimately frustrating mess, the film serves as a metaphor for the dark side of our neighbours to the south. After all, what kind of country would give young Obi Wan millions of dollars to destroy a classic novel just because he's a handsome, beloved actor? (eOne)