The Scottish actor Ewan McGregor makes a respectable if unimaginative directing debut with “American Pastoral,” yet another adaptation of a Philip Roth novel that mistakes a book’s plot and characters for its artistry.
McGregor also stars in the film as Seymour Levov, the son of a Newark glove manufacturer whose blond hair, blue eyes and preternatural athletic prowess earn him the nickname “Swede,” even though he’s Jewish. Full of warmth, patriotism and confidence in his own moral rectitude, Swede embodies everything optimistic and wholesome about post-World War II America, right down to the Irish Catholic former beauty queen he’s taken as his bride. Swede takes over his father’s glove factory, buys a cow farm amid the rolling hills of the western part of the state, and settles into a middle class family life that in time includes his beloved only daughter.
Her name is Meredith, nicknamed Merry, which turns out to be cruelly ironic: As a child, she suffers from a stutter that her speech therapist connects to Oedipal competition with her beautiful mother. As a teenager, played by Dakota Fanning, she’s a tightly coiled gyre of outrage and resentment toward everything in her orbit, including civil rights abuses, the Vietnam War and, especially, her parents.
“American Pastoral” tells the timeless story of a child pulling away from her parents, a journey here given a Rothian spin of Freudian psychology and cultural symbolism. But in compressing the novel, McGregor and screenwriter John Romano have lost its sweep and tricky subtleties: The story’s unreliable narrator, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), appears in a few scenes as he learns of Swede’s fate at a high school reunion. But rather than a complicated, refracted portrait of postwar innocence destroyed by almost biblical pain and betrayal, the film winds up being a relatively prosaic period piece of political upheaval, social dislocation and 1960s angst.
Taking his visual cues from Edward Hopper, McGregor renders Roth’s Newark and its exurbs in stylized, carefully staged vignettes. As a director, he never seems to get inside the story, which plays out in a series of increasingly troubling scenes of alienation and grief. As Swede’s wife, Dawn, Jennifer Connolly delivers a performance that becomes more masklike and rigid as her character recedes from a reality too wrenching to bear. For her part, Fanning delivers one of the finest turns of her recent career, her face flushing and eyes flashing as Merry’s teenage rebellion slips into something more ungovernable and frightening.
Oddly enough, it’s a supporting character in “American Pastoral” who makes the biggest impact: As Swede’s down-to-earth father, Lou, Peter Riegert both elevates and grounds every scene he’s in, allowing a welcome breath of realism and, occasionally, a laugh or two. He offers a glimpse of what makes or breaks a literary adaptation, especially when it comes to Roth, which has less to do with story and all to do with voice, tone and narrative attack. “American Pastoral” may tell the heartbreaking story of Swede Levov, but a firm grasp of who he is and what he means remains maddeningly elusive.
R. At area theaters. Contains some strong sexual material, obscenity and brief violent images. 126 minutes.