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Arts and Entertainment Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016 5 years ago

Film review: 'American Pastoral'

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A picture perfect family is anything but in Ewan McGregor's directorial debut.

The film "American Pastoral" is based on Philip Roth's 1997 novel and is also actor Ewan McGregor's directorial debut. But what could have been an intriguing crime drama falters in its execution.

The title is as purposely misleading, as is the content of its story. Things are not as they seem for golden boy Swede Levov (McGregor), his beauty queen wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and their rebellious daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning). Their perfect life on a farm outside of Newark is anything but. 

Merry is dearly loved by her parents but has always been an outsider due to a speech impediment. At 16, she hooks up with political activists on weekends in New York City. Her involvement with them spirals into a deadly obsession over the war in Vietnam. Her parents become concerned with the erratic behavior and try to reason with their daughter to no avail. When they ban Merry from weekends in the city, she blows up the local post office, killing the postmaster. Merry disappears, Dawn has a nervous breakdown and Swede begins a life-long search for his daughter. 

The polarization of American attitudes could have played well in "American Pastoral" given our current political climate. But it doesn't go there. Instead, Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel loses its stride by not connecting the dots. How did a precocious little girl suddenly become a murderous terrorist at age 16, living in a rural community? No red flags were raised, no smoking guns are left behind. There's a vague innuendo, sexual in nature, tossed out there between father and daughter that's never developed. Swede, for all practical purposes, is portrayed as the perfect father. A psychiatrist suggests that Dawn's beauty could be fodder for Merry's stutter in an explanation that's, well, downright laughable. Things just don't add up.

In its defense, "American Pastoral" is well directed and acted. The implementation of black-and-white archival footage and a sometimes snappy score also assist in keeping the film afloat. But the sorry script suffers so dramatically that all efforts elsewhere can't help the craft from taking on water. 

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