HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Title: American Pastoral
HTS Overall Score:74
Have you ever heard the old adage that the better the novel the worse the film adaptation? Well, it’s been a pretty solid truth for most book to screen films and oh so accurate when it seems to come to Phillip Roth novels. The great novelist has made some INCREDIBLE works of fiction, but his film adaptations of those novels has not had the greatest track record for success. Part of it is probably due to the incredible density and complexity of Roth’s books trying to be crammed into a 2 hour or less film, but part of it also has to do with hiring people who don’t really see what he’s getting at with the allegories that litter his pages. “Indignation” was the last Phillip Roth book to get the silver screen adaptation, and while it had its strong points, was largely a lackluster movie with way too much condensation of events to be anything more than a cliff’s notes of the original story. So naturally I was a bit hesitant to check out “American Pastoral” being that it is based off of the book of the same name and is widely considered to be the Magnum Opus of Roth’s entire library of work. A book that is revered and hailed as one of the best novelizations of the post World War II reconstruction process to date. A book I greatly loved as well. While the movie is not HORRIBLE on its own, it is nothing but the barest shadow of the original story and is a cliff’s note of a cliff’s note of the book, which makes for a very frustrating viewing.
I’m not going to bore you too much with comparing every line of the movie to every line of the book, but sufficed to say that this is the briefest of glimpses into the tale of “The Swede” and his destruction. The film opens up with novelist Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) going back to his 45th high school reunion where he runs into the brother of the school’s legendary quarterback only to find out that said brother had just recently passed away. The rest of the movie is literally the brother Jerry (Rupert Evans) catching Nathan up with what happened after they left high school.
Swede Levov (Ewan McGregor) was this giant strapping Jewish boy in New Jersey with the looks of a Nordic god and the football skills of an American god. He was charming, a winner in everything he did and a loveable guy. After high school he went to serve his country in the final days of World War II and then moved on to become a successful businessman in his father’s leather glove factory. He married Miss New Jersey 1949 (Dawn Levov, played by Jennifer Connelly) and gave birth to a gorgeous baby girl named Merry (Dakota Fanning, Ocean James and Hannah Nordberg at differing ages). However, this is where the happy story ends. Merry is a sensitive and sweet child at first, but as she grows up her sensitive side begins to overwhelm her common sense and she starts to become an activist, especially with the growing Vietnam War during the 1960s. As time goes by Swede and Dawn feel their daughter is slipping away and they try to at least be a part of her odd life. However, a father/daughter counseling session goes horribly wrong when Swede tries to reach his daughter part way in the middle by encouraging her to protest the war in their hometown in New Jersey as a way to bridge the ever-widening gap. Unfortunately, Merry decides to protest the war by copying the moves of the more violent members of her group think and “bring the war home” by bombing a post office and subsequently vanishing from site.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=90794[/img]Swede and Dawn are absolutely devastated by Merry’s actions, but this is only the beginning of their personal hell. Decades are spent searching for their beloved daughter and the strain acts as a catalyst for the self-destruction of their little American dream. Dawn starts to lose her sanity after a while and ends up cheating on her husband and blaming him for the loss of their daughter as well as her failed dreams. On the other side, Swede is completely destroyed both within and without, dealing with the betrayal by three different women in his life (only one of them being dawn, the other two form the basis for a few of the twists in the story so I won’t go into great deal about them) and the resulting fallout from that. No matter the pain he suffers, he still searches for the daughter that was lost to him, only to find that some things are better left lost.
The movie and the book differ drastically from each other, with the book being an incredible dissection of post war life after the last world war. Roth meant the novel to show that life after the war wasn’t all roses and sunshine, with people winking and nodding to each other over cups of lemonade. Much of the destruction in the Swede’s life are not meant to be taken literally, but as an allegory, or focal point, for us to look and analyze with a sober mind. The movie just ends up being amazingly scattered and a shell of the book’s information. We skip from scene to scene and year to year at the quickest of moments, barely having time to digest and process the information that came before it because there is SOOOOOOOO much material in the timeline to get through that dillydallying would have made for a 9 hour film. Sadly, that’s the biggest weakness in McGregor’s adaptation of Roth’s work. The time. “American Pastoral” BEGS for a high budget miniseries and not a paltry hour and 48 minute film. There is so much material that is pertinent to the story that castrating it this way makes for a visually frustrating experience. Even the famed meeting between Swede and Merry decades later is robbed of the power and devastating emotion that was present during the book, leaving it hollow and empty inside.
With that said, I do have some praises for Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut. Ewan has a heart of gold and you can tell that he gave this ALL he had. The film reeks of eagerness and enthusiasm, but also it has to content with the problems of being a first-time director, making first time mistakes in a story that really begs for someone with legendary delicacy to handle properly. McGregor may be a weak director in his freshman trial behind the camera, but he plays Swede Levov to a T and his fantastic acting skills make him the highlight of the movie. Jennifer Connelly has a knack for portraying cruel or heartless women well, and she does a decent enough job playing both sides of the coin with Dawn. The only really weak spot was Dakota Fanning, who seems less human than she should have been, and embodied the despicable lunatic aspect of her character more than she did the reachable and vulnerable girl that embodied the strange dichotomy she had within herself.
Rated R for some strong sexual material, language and brief violent images
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=90802[/img]Despite being an extremely low budget movie that was mostly screened at art house theaters, “American Pastoral” is given a fantastic looking 2.39:1 AVC encoded Blu-ray for us today. Depending on the time period that it is set in, McGregor gives us differing color gradings ranging from green tinged Vietnam era times, or the golden honey hues of the classic 50s, to the modern day neutral tones when it shifts to his later years with Dawn. Fine detail is resplendent throughout, with strong facial details and a goodly amount of nuances on clothing and textural bits. Black levels are strong and healthy, although I do think that some of the color grading gives a few scenes a slightly washed out look. Artifacting is minimalistic with only some occasional crush to really act as anything of note negative.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=90810[/img]Being a Phillip Roth based movie, you can expect a fairly front heavy mix that relies heavily on dialog to take the brunt of the audio work, and that is exactly what we get. The vocals and dialog centric movie is given a solid mix, with great front sound stage work and some moderate use of the back channels. Most of the time we get quiet conversations, but that can be punctuated with sharper moments of more excitability, such as when the national guard is suppressing the riots during the civil rights movement in the 60s, or the rushing of a stream when Swede takes a childish Merry out to go camping. LFE is constrained, but does add some low end support in the haunting score as well as the sporadic every day item like a car door slamming or a gunshot going off.
• Audio Commentary by Ewan McGregor
• "American Pastoral: Adapting an American Classic" Featurette
• "Making the American Dream" Featurette
I have conflicted emotions about “American Pastoral”. On one hand, it’s a fairly flawed melodramatic story about a father searching for his prodigal daughter, but on the other hand it is an abomination when compared to the book. I tried very hard to separate the movie from the novel, but with a book as beloved and revered as “American Pastoral” it is difficult to do so. The movie is not a horrible movie in its own right, but it is still nowhere near a good film due to being basically a cliff’s note summary of a much larger story, and the condensing shows really badly at times. I have to give Ewan McGregor props for taking on a project this large and doing so well with being a first timer, but sadly some of the hurdles were just too large to overcome to make a satisfying movie. Personally, I’m hovering between skipping the film and just renting it. If you’re a big fan of Phillip Roth you might want to see if you can Redbox or Netflix it, but for the uninitiated I think that the lack of story cohesion will be a turnoff and it might be better to skip entirely.
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Connelly
Directed by: Ewan McGregor
Written by: Philip Roth (Novel), John Romano (Screenplay)
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 AVC
Audio: English: DTS-HD MA 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1
Runtime: 108 Minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: February 7th, 2017
Buy American Pastoral On Blu-ray at Amazon
Recommendation: Skip It/Low Rental
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