‘That’s how we know we’re alive – we’re wrong,’ a character observes in Philip Roth’s 1997 Pulitzer-winning novel ‘American Pastoral’. Based on that piece of insight, actor-turned-director Ewan McGregor’s movie version is very much alive: it’s a remarkably committed effort that takes a few seriously misguided turns along the way.
What makes ‘American Pastoral’ fall short is that the film settles for only half the novel’s impact – the part about successful Jewish businessman Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov (McGregor) having a midlife meltdown. He escapes 1950s expectations, marries a New Jersey beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly) and creates a life of middle-class bliss, just as the counterculture and his rebellious teenage daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning, the best thing about the film), screw it all up.
The movie plays like a compelling late-season episode of ‘Mad Men’, riffing on generation-gap tensions. But there’s something deeper in the book that McGregor and TV-vet screenwriter John Romano miss. The film somehow remembers to digitally create an in-construction Twin Towers in the background of a night drive, but it doesn’t get at the cosmic ruination of Roth’s critique of faith, nor the character traits that make Swede so emblematic of a certain era of American Jewish success.