Has there ever been anyone you've admired, looked up to? Maybe from the outside it looks like they have a perfect life. After all, the grass is always greener on the other side. Only, it never really is. American Pastoral is one such story of a man who was admired by many. One who has a seemingly perfect life, only for that normalcy, that middle-class life to disappear because of his daughter's Earth-shattering decisions. Adapted by John Romano from the novel by Philip Roth, Ewan McGregor directs a film that is uneven and messy character-wise.
Seymour "Swede" Levov (Ewan McGregor) seemingly has it all. He was an all-star high school football player, married Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), former Miss New Jersey, and went on to take over his father's leather business. His entire town adored him and thought his life was the epitome of what a good middle-class family life should look like. And for a few years, maybe it was. Swede and Dawn were raising Merry (Dakota Fanning), but as the years went on, it quickly became clear that Merry was going down a path neither had anticipated. As a teenager, she becomes increasingly angry and bitter toward her parents for not caring enough about the nation's climate. Her anger turns her toward more radical ideas and when she disappears after an explosion she's suspected of carrying out, Swede's normal life implodes.
The film begins and ends with Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), who's back in New Jersey for his 45th high school reunion. This throws off the film. This character is supposed to represent the audience, but he isn't really connected to the over-arching story at all. He's there to provide narrative information that McGregor's onscreen brother could have easily provided. Why use a third-party character without tying him into anything? He's shoehorned in unnecessarily and his presence does nothing for the narrative.
American Pastoral is about the destruction of the suburban, normal bubble by more radical ideas during an intense era of change. But these ideas are only touched upon in bouts of anger by Fanning and since the entire story is shaped through McGregor's perspective, Connelly and Fanning's stories get sidelined and feel incomplete. The latter two characters wind up pushing McGregor over the edge, even though he never falters in his delusion that Merry would change and come back home. This often makes him seem like the victim of a bad situation and the better person than even his wife, even when many of the decisions he makes are terrible ones.
We get fascinating and often creepy (she asks her dad to kiss her like he kisses her mom) interactions between the family while Merry is still young. Merry's speech therapist theorizes that Merry uses her stutter as a shield because then she won't have to face the pressures of trying to become like her former beauty queen mother and her successful businessman father. However, the film introduces various themes but never follows through with them. Themes of beauty and how that affects a child, themes of change, varying ideas from one's family, and societal norms all play into the film, but none are ever explored. Instead, the focus shifts entirely to Swede in the last half of the film and denies the other far more interesting characters to shine.
American Pastoral is a mess of characterization and follow-through. The film quickly dissolves into contrived drama and uneven and skewed character motivations. If so much of the drama is centered on Merry's actions, it would have been appropriate to show us more of her perspective and journey to where she was and where she ultimately ended up. By the time the second act comes around, there's no saving the film from getting back on course. Even the subplot of Swede's blackmail by Merry's friend, Rita (Valorie Curry), threatens to turn the film into a suspenseful chase story and could have been handled differently. All in all, "American Pastoral" has a lot of issues and they're too big to ignore.