Movie Review: ‘AMERICAN PASTORAL’ – a valiant but troublesome effort by Ewan McGregor

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

AMERICAN PASTORAL | 126 min | R
Director: Ewan McGregor
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota FanningPeter RiegertRupert Evans and David Strathairn

At one point in the movie, the Levovs are at an art show admiring a friend’s work. During an aside conversation, Lou (Peter Riegert) makes a comment about how he doesn’t get this art, and then makes a direct juxtaposition to expressing his admiration for Dawn’s (Jennifer Connelly) new look. Is it a comment about new forms through the male gaze? Is it meant to signify the changing generation’s skew on life? Or is the scene as a whole a direct comment of fake beauty in contrast to real passion?

The answer is all of the above and none of the above. Does that make sense? Nope. Then again, neither does AMERICAN PASTORAL, the directorial debut of Ewan McGregor, who also stars as Seymour “Swede” Levov, a picture-perfect ideal of an all-American male. To say the movie never finds the right tone is an understatement, as it weaves through various statements that are so vague it never answers the questions it elicits from the audience.

Swede Levov was a man who gained legend from high school athletics, married a former Miss USA contestant in Dawn, and inherited the family business. They had a daughter named Merry (Dakota Fanning), whose want to be a part of something other than middle-class ideology leads to the destruction of her parents. One fateful day in 1968 leads to a tragedy they never recover from, and a mystery as to who Merry really is as a person.

Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly in AMERICAN PASTORAL. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly in AMERICAN PASTORAL. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth, AMERICAN PASTORAL’s narrative itself is fairly linear with respect to a timeline. Framed by a second narrative of Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), he is at a high school reunion where Nathan runs into his old friend Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans). He asks him “Whatever happened to Swede?”, to which Jerry dives into the story of Merry and how her personal revolution would lead to his brother’s demise.

The biggest problem the film has is that it relies so much on statement that it is at the behest of its character development. Swede at one point is worried about Merry’s safety and whereabouts, but is looking indifferent in the next scene. He’s constantly trying to put the pieces together but is very naïve about the world in general. Dawn goes insane at some point with no real transition to show for it, and Merry becoming a 1960s radical just sort of happened as well.

McGregor’s direction has some nice elements to it, but also some questionable decisions that are made. The acting isn’t bad and there are some nice shots, but it all gets lost by pretension. For instance, during a scene where Swede is his most emotional and volatile, the shot just fades to black out of nowhere, and then moves to the next scene. Something with that much emotion needs to have loud finality before moving on, but instead is just another example of the movie killing its own momentum.

AMERICAN PASTORAL is meant to be indicative of the times we live in at the moment, and the cause for some sort of action against oppression. The intent comes across without problem, but the statement is just one big question mark.

AMERICAN PASTORAL opens today.

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About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.