Ewan McGregor treads where other men have failed - attempting to adapt Philip Roth to the big screen - with American Pastoral. The Scottish actor's feature debut as director is an enormous undertaking that seems curious on its face. Indeed, the idea of McGregor tackling the Pulitzer prize-winning novel for his first time behind the camera makes little sense on paper and perhaps even less on screen. Roth is perhaps the most celebrated writer of the Jewish-American middle-class experience in the mid-20th century, and none of his novels' film adaptations have been met by critical or commercial success. Either those attempting to translate Roth to the screen - notables like Ernest Lehman, Robert Benton and Barry Levinson - have been unable to find just the right tone and balance, or the author's books simply do not lend themselves to becoming movies.
McGregor's American Pastoral begins with a framing device that feels unnecessary in the film, even if it makes more sense in the context of Roth's book. A high school reunion in New Jersey finds successful writer Nathan Zuckerman (played by David Strathairn) re-connecting with his old friend Jerry Levov some four decades since graduation. Zuckerman lost touch over the years and didn't know what had become of Jerry's brother Seymour "Swede" Levov whose funeral Jerry is in town to attend the following day. Since Zuckerman is a frequent presence and something of an alter ego for Roth in his stories it follows that he'd introduce this story to us on the page, but it's far less elegant when put on film. This isn't Zuckerman's story, he never makes an appearance and he's not even the one telling it. He's superfluous here..
We do learn that Swede (McGregor) was a legendary New Jersey athlete out of Newark, a blonde-haired Jew who excelled at football and baseball. He married a beautiful gentile pageant winner (Jennifer Connelly) and the two had an ever-curious little girl who stuttered named Merry. The family lives on rural land, shared with a few cows, several miles west of the city while Swede drives every day to the glove factory his father had started. The story takes some time to build up to Merry's rebellious late teens but this is where its prime elements are revealed. Still in high school, Merry (now played by Dakota Fanning) frequently goes into New York City to meet with radical student protestors against Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. She has completely rebelled against her middle-class home life.
McGregor's Swede is a decent man, if something of a blank canvas, undone by the actions of his now-absent daughter. The conflict that persists between the traditional values that come natural to Swede and the world in crisis as seen by Merry forms the thrust of the film. What's frustrating is that we're left too often to wonder what's the intended point of any of what we're seeing. Themes feel absent or inadequately explored. Those unfamiliar with Roth's novel will likely have no idea what the author was trying to accomplish just from watching the film.
American Pastoral is a competently made film, and McGregor's stab at directing is an admirable attempt. The performances, too, are all relatively on target (though Connelly's character arc feels somewhat coarse). One particular virtue worth celebrating is the welcome disruption that comes with Valorie Curry as Rita Cohen. This is the scene-stealing, lightning in a bottle bit that makes you sit upright in your seat and take notice. I can imagine that nothing feels, tonally, as much like Roth's novel as the eye-opening encounter McGregor's Swede has with Rita in a Manhattan hotel room. It's perhaps the only time in the picture where things move away from feeling somber or straightforward.
And that brings us back to the trouble with the movie. If you're going to adapt a lauded and admired work of fiction to the cinema then it's probably best to not neglect the reasons and elements for which it was praised. Trying to understand why Roth's story mattered while watching the movie version is tough. Simply as a film, American Pastoral is watchable and mildly intriguing for fans of the actors involved or the setting. As an adaptation, it misses the book's verve, feeling flat and safe.
American Pastoral arrives on Region A Blu-ray from Lionsgate. This edition is advertised as containing the BD and Digital HD but my copy also had a DVD inside the case.
Using the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the image looks strong and accurate. The handsomely shot images appear true, if often dark. Detail nonetheless registers well. The key to approaching this picture visually is to know that the work and color palettes of Edward Hopper were a major reference point for the movie's aesthetic. The transfer overall shows no damage and seems faithful to the original presentation.
Audio comes in the form of an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that competently shares the film's dialogue while also showcasing Alexandre Desplat's often subdued musical score. There's a Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital dub and subtitles are included in both English for the hearing impaired and Spanish.
Extra features are not numerous but do actually combine to enhance appreciation of the film. After viewing the supplements and hearing the audio commentary by star and director Ewan McGregor I found myself at least respecting American Pastoral more, even if it still ultimately founders.
Featurettes "American Pastoral: Adapting an American Classic" (28:07) and "Making the American Dream" (17:38) are a cut above the usual promotional fluff that accompanies new releases. Here we at least get some insight from a number of cast and crew members as to what they were trying to accomplish, as well as offering a peek into that process.