[Early Review] American Pastoral (2016)

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Director: Ewan McGregor

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Rupert Evans, Valorie Curry

Screenplay: John Romano

126 mins. Rated R for some strong sexual material, language and brief violent images.

 

I was blessed to have seen American Pastoral last night with a friend. Not a film that I had heard much news from, I was aware of the novel written by Philip Roth. I hadn’t read it, but I’d heard good things. So with American Pastoral the film, I was more intrigued by Ewan McGregor’s directing debut. Nowadays, many actors are finding themselves as successful or more behind the camera, and I was interested by McGregor’s choice to start here.

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Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor) had always been remembered as the star athlete from high school, the man who married high school sweetheart and beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind, Noah), a man who seemingly had the perfect life. But as Swede’s brother Jerry (Rupert Evans, Hellboy, The Boy) recalls, things changed pretty quickly for Levov not long after starting a family. As his daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning, War of the Worlds, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) matured, she began to think more radically and hang out with a more dangerous crowd, a decision that would tear the Swede’s world apart.

American Pastoral almost holds it all together. Almost. It starts with a great performance from McGregor, and as the film progresses, you can see hints of genius, but they are muddled down with inexperience. The entire first act of the film is strangely unhinged. It starts with a poorly hewn together framing device featuring David Strathairn asking about the Swede at a high school reunion. The framing device isn’t unnecessary, but it isn’t done well. It features Strathairn as a writer relaying through voiceover and it feels so Lifetime Channel-y. That leads into the first act where it feels like people are reading from cue cards. It isn’t until the plot’s true inciting incident where the film comes together, and from there, it does get better, but everything before comes off a little too perfect.

The performances get better as the film progresses, but I have to point out the solid supporting work from Peter Riegert and Uzo Aduba as Swede’s father and his top employee, respectively. Valorie Curry (TV’s The Following, Blair Witch) is also enchantingly disturbed as a woman with connections to Merry’s radical group.

The cinematography and editing make the film a little too plain, not something exciting and powerful, which is how the story should feel. This is difficult subject material, and there are many times when the film is full of pain, but the film doesn’t convey it well to the audience. The issue of the makeup effects too looks bad, particularly around Rupert Evans in the present-day scenes.

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Sadly, American Pastoral shows signs of greatness, but there just isn’t enough of it, as the film dances around in monotony and sinks in uninspired bliss. Ewan McGregor and Dakota Fanning shine in their performances, but it isn’t enough to push this film over the finish line.

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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