When a famous actor decides to try their hand at directing, it's always a risky proposition. Sometimes it turns out great, but it can often be a total disaster. For every Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood, there's an actor who outright bombs with his debut film. Going into the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the big questions on everyone's mind was how Ewan McGregor would fare with his first directorial feature, American Pastoral. The dynamic star of films like Star Wars, Trainspotting, and Moulin Rouge! had decided to tackle a sprawling, ambitious adaptation of one of the most famous modern American novels from Philip Roth, a book that had been previously been deemed as impossible to put on film. That was an immediate red flag for many audience members and critics, but after months of good buzz, a great trailer, the success of another Roth adaptation, and a prime Friday night slot at the Toronto International Film Festival, anticipation began to grow for McGregor's debut film.
Much to the surprise of myself and a good number of people at the festival, American Pastoral fell completely flat. In fact, I would argue that it was one of the biggest bombs of the fest. It's currently sitting at a ghastly 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most critics rejected the film without hesitation, dismissing it as a misguided, Oscar bait-y adaptation of an incredible book. And after seeing the film, it's not hard to see why very few people were taken by it- American Pastoral is just not a good movie, and I don't know if it ever was going to be. It's too big, too unruly, too unfocused. McGregor has some directorial chops, which makes it all the more unfortunate that his debut comes across as a cross between a poorly staged play and a sprawling epic that got out of control. He nails the look and feel of 1950/60's America, but that can only get you so far when you're dealing with a narrative that just isn't all that interesting. American Pastoral isn't a disaster, but it is a film that misses the mark by a mile.
Spanning several decades in American history, Pastoral tells the story of Seymour "Swede" Levov (McGregor), a beloved star athlete in his New Jersey hometown and a family man. He marries a beautiful pageant queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and has a young daughter, Merry. Basically, Swede is living the American dream. There are a few hiccups along the way as young Merry (Hannah Nordberg) struggles with a speech impediment, but for the most part, the 1950s are a time of idyllic prosperity for the Levov family. Then come the 1960s. Merry (played at an older age by Dakota Fanning) joins several anarchic and left-wing protest groups, and suddenly, Swede finds his peaceful, ordinary life falling apart at the seams. After possibly committing a heinous crime and mysteriously disappearing, Merry becomes the central focus of Swede's life as he searches to find his daughter and save their crumbling family.
I'm stuck in a weird place with American Pastoral. Because while I admire its ambition and scope, its execution is spotty. Some scenes manage to work, but they're few and far between compared to the multitude of sequences that feel aimless, stilted, and messy. McGregor captures the look and feel of the Fifties and Sixties beautifully, contrasting exquisitely plain detail with a grimy, downtrodden look. But ultimately, these are all surface-level pleasures, hiding the basic fact that there's just not much going on in this movie. Is this focus on exteriors a comment on the shallow superficiality of America? I don't think so. Whatever McGregor is trying to say gets drowned out by the emptiness of the characters, the lack of subtlety and depth, and the baffling nature of some of the directorial choices.
Let's talk about the characters for a second. They're central to the failure of American Pastoral, and the fact that they're all ciphers is a huge problem. Swede Levov is played decently by McGregor (it's not his finest hour, yet he's okay), but there's absolutely nothing to the character of Swede. He's portrayed as a vanilla all-American man mourning the destruction of his suburban life. But why? Who is he really? Is he nothing but what's on the surface? All we get in terms of Swede's background is some voiceover from David Strathairn and a few blurbs of exposition. The movie never digs deep into his emotions or feelings, and McGregor isn't able to bring anything fascinating to the character. This is an even bigger problem for Jennifer Connelly's Dawn, who is perhaps the most underdeveloped character in the entire movie. Dawn is a beauty queen who gets plastic surgery at some point during the story. That's it. I know that's a commentary on the superficial nature of the 1950s, but Dawn feels like such a side note throughout the entire movie. "Swede's upset! Merry's a murderer! Oh, and Dawn's here too. She might be going crazy," feels like a good way to sum up Pastoral.
Merry is the final part of our main trio of leads, and she might just be the most baffling character of the bunch. I'm sure that she's well fleshed-out in the book, but here, she's such a strangely crafted character that I could never get a read on what McGregor was trying to say. Early in the movie, it's implied that Merry has some kind of sexual complex for her father and uses her speech impediment to gain his attention. When the action shifts to the 60s, she's suddenly condemning Lyndon B. Johnson as a fascist and joining anarchist groups......because that's what kids did in the 1960s? Sure, there were plenty of young people fighting for a revolution in the decade, but usually there was some kind of a reason for it. American Pastoral portrays the reason as simply "Merry was a bad egg from the start" and never goes deeper than that. The psychological subplot is dumped early, and by the time that Merry's a full-blown terrorist, it's a total mystery as to why she suddenly became a revolutionary.
The main characters feel undercooked and one-dimensional, so it's no surprise that the supporting crew lacks even a semblance of definition. Uzo Aduba is totally wasted as Vicky, a character that feels entirely superfluous to the narrative. Valorie Curry has drawn praise for her performance here, but her character disappears during the movie, illustrating a strange plot point and then vanishing. And finally, even though David Strathairn's Nathan Zuckerman is the emotional crux of the movie, it's never clear who his character is or why he cares about the story of the Swede. For me, all of this blame goes to John Romano's script, which is often brutally bad. Not only does the script never manage to make the characters or plot fascinating, it also delivers some cringe-worthy dialogue. Every line feels like it's being delivered by an actor, not by a real person. That creates some scenes that are really difficult to watch for all the wrong reasons. The delivery of every line feels calculated and forced, like a stage play gone haywire. It can be really tough to watch at times.
American Pastoral may look very pretty, but it's as shallow as the characters that inhabit it. Ewan McGregor shows quite a bit of promise from a visual composition standpoint- there are some really gorgeous shots in this film- and yet, he's truly hindered by a disastrous script that never does any good for his vision or the performances. I'd like to see McGregor try again with a tighter script, something that feels smaller with a much more limited scope. His ambition is admirable, which makes it all the more unfortunate that American Pastoral got away from him. Cinephiles entered TIFF with high expectations for a stunning debut, but in the blink of an eye, this disappointing adaptation evaporated into thin air.
THE FINAL GRADE: C- (5.1/10)
Images courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures