An effective Philip Roth adaptation demands an original big-screen voice, one capable of taking complex and personal material and shaping it into something at once consistent with the original work and wholly its own.
In his directorial debut, Ewan McGregor employs the exact opposite tactic as he brings Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral” to the movies. This is a movie of glossy mid-20th century New Jersey surfaces and Vietnam era America-in-turmoil clichés.
McGregor plays Seymour “Swede” Levov, a Jewish one-time Newark high school star athlete, who marries Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) outside of his faith, moves from the city to the hinterlands and eventually finds himself utterly unable to reach his increasingly radicalized anti-war activist daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning).
The film touches on the author’s exploration of distinctly American and Jewish questions of assimilation and identity, set against a moment of collective crisis, as a rock might skim the surface of a lake.
It is far removed from the psychological depths of this story, consumed by familiar accoutrements ranging from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” on the soundtrack to scenes of street protests, and it is packed with dramatic confrontations characterized by a dense fog of artifice.