American Pastoral *

A truly unpleasant drama with two-dimensional characters and very little depth.

Is it worth $10? No

It’s dangerous to ask someone what they thought of a movie minutes after seeing it. Most movies need a little mental marinating before a true opinion can be formed. After walking out of “American Pastoral,” my opinion was requested. Without hesitation, I responded, “I hated every minute of it,” and sauntered into the lobby like George Jefferson. Was that an overreaction? Maybe it was better than I initially gave it credit for. Maybe I just needed some time to understand the film better. Well, it’s been a couple of days since I’ve seen it, and you know − Nah. I still hate every minute of it.

Based on the novel by Philip Roth, the film is set primarily in the turbulent 1960s (made clear with obvious musical cues such as The Byrds’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”) and focuses on handsome, all-American Seymor “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor, who also directed), his wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and their efforts to raise their child, Merry (Ocean James at a young age, Dakota Fanning after that). Merry is a troubled soul that becomes even more troubled as she grows up and becomes wrapped up with political radicals. After an incident of protest goes terribly awry, Merry disappears. Swede and Dawn, confused and wracked with guilt, attempt to find their missing daughter and make sense out of what happened and why.

“American Pastoral” has a simple, straightforward story. There’s nothing wrong with simple, especially when emboldened by three-dimensional characters and subtext ripe for dissection and discussion well after the film is over. This movie has none of those things. It’s obvious, overwrought, and basically checks off clichés as if it were going down a pre-flight checklist.

It begins with the acting. The leads have already proven to be excellent actors, yet here they all go overboard. Scottish Ewan McGregor has never been able to pull off a convincing American accent, and it’s even more painful than ever here. He keeps over-enunciating all of his vowels like a demented Katherine Hepburn. Though he’s still charismatic, his accent is such a distraction that even he seems to be troubled by it and turns in a stiff, awkward performance as a result.

Jennifer Connelly fares no better as her performance is punctuated with ridiculous hysterics. There’s a sad moment where she’s overcome with grief, but it’s rendered completely awkward because she unnaturally throws her head back and wails frantically and unnaturally. It was so ridiculous, I almost laughed. Out of respect for my fellow patrons who might, for some reason, be enjoying the film, I just silently bashed my head into the headrest of my seat instead. With an actor directing, shouldn’t more care have been taken to dial down the acting hysterics?

Part of the blame, though, rests on the painfully underwritten roles. Each character has only one, maybe two defining traits, if that. Swede is decent and upstanding. Dawn is, um, pretty? I don’t know. A big deal is made about how she is more than her looks, but it’s never clear what that is.

But the biggest problem is Merry. Unlikable characters are hard to pull off, but it can be done. Fascinating is more important than likability. Merry, though, is not fascinating. She’s just disagreeable. Most of the time she’s selfish, nasty, and rebellious, and little effort is made to deepen her.

Oh, and she has daddy issues. How do we know this? Because the movie spells it out, word for word. In an unnecessary scene, Swede and Dawn meet with a psychiatrist who’s helping Merry with a stuttering problem, and she declares that the affliction stems from an Electra complex. Sure enough, a while later, Merry asks her father to kiss her “the way you kiss Mommy.” Why is this explained before it happens? Couldn’t we figure it out for ourselves? And this happens more than once; a character explains exactly what’s going to happen and then you just watch it happen. Subtlety isn’t everything, but when a movie is this obvious, it’s painful.

The whole endeavor just leaves you asking, “What was the point?” True, it’s not fair to demand a point from a movie, and I’ve certainly enjoyed films that may not have had a discernable purpose. But there’s so little depth to “American Pastoral” that it practically begs the question.

After speaking with a friend who has read the novel, that lack of depth appears to have a reason. But that reason is never translated to the screen. The words were adapted, yes, but not the thought behind them. So what are we left with? A slow slog through misery. If that sounds appealing to you − read the book instead.

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