- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2016


Philip Roth is among the most difficult of authors to adapt to the screen. Not for lack of action, but because his authorial voice and sense of place, location and culture are so hyperspecific. Filmmaker James Schamus made a damn good film earlier this year with his adaptation of Mr. Roth’s “Indignation” (unread by myself), about a New Jersey Jewish young man who goes to an Ohio prep school to avoid the Korean War. Mr. Scahmus has an adept ear for dialogue and a master’s control of drama, as evidenced in the 20-minute-long scene of the young Marcus (Logan Lerman) going toe to toe with the WASP-y, subtly but almost certainly anti-Semitic headmaster (Tracy Letts). It is the year’s best scene in a film, hands down.

Now here we have Ewan McGregor’s adaptation of Mr. Roth’s “American Pastoral,” which I did in fact read a decade ago. It is one of the most tragic stories ever committed to the page, but it is, simultaneously, uncomplicated. The brilliance of the book comes not from its rather standard plot of adolescent rebellion against midcentury middle-class values — though writ incredibly, horribly large — but from Mr. Roth’s prosaic writing, his cynical tearing off of the veneer of ‘50s Americana and poking at its scab until it bleeds with putrescence.

His writing in the book is exquisite misery, as his hero, Seymour “Swede” Levov, finds that his one and only daughter has destroyed his American dream — a fate which he continually, stubbornly, impossibly refuses to accept.

It is a very East Coast, New Jersey tale, steeped in Mr. Roth’s examination of his Jewishness. It struck me as odd that Mr. McGregor, a Scotsman and a Gentile, would elect it for his directorial debut, though I will venture to believe that he saw in “American Pastoral” the universality of tragedy rather than any specific ethnic or cultural specificity. For this I do not fault him, nor his efforts in trying to translate the book for the big screen.

And herein is the problem. “American Pastoral” is, quite simply, unfilmable. I’ve said as such of other books before, but was pleasantly surprised by Ang Lee’s momentous adaptation of “Life of Pi,” conjured from his incredible imagination and translation of Yann Martel’s largely internal tale — and its convincing 3-D interaction between star and both real and CGI animals trapped on a life raft.

“American Pastoral,” on the other hand, is a far different, uh, animal, but for reasons other than logistics. As Mr. Roth did in his book, the screenplay by John Romano (a Newark, New Jersey, native, also Mr. Roth’s hometown) uses as a wraparound device Mr. Roth’s avatar, Nathan Zuckerman (David Straitharn) attending his 45th year high school reunion, where he encounters his old friend Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans), brother of Swede Levov, the class athletic hero and WWII Marine veteran. “The Swede,” Jerry tells his old friend the writer, has just died. And his life, Zuckerman is to learn, was anything but the idyll it was meant to be. (The irony here is that the fictional author, who wrote about almost everything, was the only one from town who didn’t know.)

The story then goes back to the post-war era. The Swede (played by Mr. McGregor) marries spirited Gentile Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), who holds her own when at first interrogated by the Swede’s traditional father Lou (Peter Riegert) as to how they will raise children in the mixed-faith union. The Swede, co-managing his father’s Newark tannery and glove factory, buys a property in nearby Morris County, which his father sees as the boonies.

The Levovs have a daughter, Merry, a lovely child despite a perpetual stutter. As Merry grows into teenagehood, where she is played by Dakota Fanning, her rebellious streak becomes at first tiresome but soon deeply disconcerting. The Vietnam War is on, and Merry is spending time in New York with unknown radical elements opposed to the war. The Swede promises Merry he too is against the conflict in Southeast Asia, but what else can be done?

Plenty, Merry believes.

I shall stop here describing the plot, for it is from there that the action changes and forever alters the Levovs’ lives. Key to the tragedy is the Swede’s inability to comprehend that “this” has happened to him, that the girl he raised is capable of such a thing. Dawn is, however reluctantly, more accepting, and ready to get on with their upper-middle-class life and drown her disappointment in profligate spending and drinking.

The problem with Mr. McGregor’s film is partly Mr. Romano’s screenplay, which tries too hard to hammer home the message of disrupted domestic tranquility without trusting the audience to get it. After the “big event,” there isn’t much room for the film narrative left to travel — again, the book required inward description to carry most of the subsequent action but for a few significant episodes of the pages.

Secondarily, Mr. McGregor’s auteur’s touch isn’t correct for the material, and his actor’s portrayal of the Swede feels too forced. I won’t say that the material has been lost in translation, but, as a native New Jerseyan, I couldn’t help notice that not a foot of film was shot in the Garden State. (Pittsburgh was used for location work.) The film adds too many scenes of melodrama where understatement is needed. Mr. McGregor shows early promise in that department in a scene where Lou looks through the window at black Newarkers outside his factory without a word — never mind that the Levovs proudly proclaim how many African-Americans they employ at their glove factory — and we can’t help but feel the uncomfortably unspoken prejudice and know riots are coming, from which New Jersey’s largest city is still recovering.

If you have not read “American Pastoral,” your takeaway may be different than mine, but whereas the novel is a masterpiece of prose, irony and heartache, Mr. McGregor’s film of the tome comes across as hollow and largely without point — and even tacks on an unneeded, overly obvious ending that reaches for redemption when the whole point of the story is that none exists.

Even the normally trustworthy acting of Mr. McGregor and the dynamic Miss Connelly fails to move beyond its blocking, and their on-screen marriage lacks all chemistry. Miss Fanning does her best with her underwritten part as the wayward daughter, although her latter scenes do strive toward the cataclysm of the story.

I’ll file this under “if you have nothing better to do” this weekend. “American Pastoral“‘s intentions are sincere, the effort is put forth, but the end result is a void as shallow and uninteresting as Mr. Roth’s original tragedy is a maelstrom of horrors that swallows all optimism whole.

Rated R: Language, brief violence and a scene of perverse sexuality.

Author’s note: “American Pastoral” is the only book I have ever read that mentioned my home town of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, where strawberries were once put on the train to Newark and New York.

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