The better the book, the worse the movie – that sad-but-true rule has few exceptions. And American Pastoral, first-time director Ewan McGregor's calamitous take on Phillip Roth's Pulitzer-winning 1997 novel, is awful enough to cement the rule in stone. McGregor and screenwriter John Romano misread the novel at every turn, draining it of life, power and purpose. Curiously, the Scottish actor-turned-filmmaker has miscast himself in the lead role of Seymour Irving Levov, a Jewish athlete from Newark, New Jersey, who is nicknamed the Swede because of his Nordic good looks – blond hair, blue eyes, strapping build. The man is indisputably handsome, but otherwise constitutionally alien to all things Swede. It throws the movie off right out of the gate.
In post-war America, Swede had it all: school football hero, Marine vet, gatekeeper of his father's glove factory with a staff that's 80-percent black, suburban-mansion owner, husband to shiksa beauty queen Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly) and devoted dad to stuttering teen Merry (Dakota Fanning). She's the perfect daughter until, well, she isn’t – and to Roth, Merry reps the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when militant groups like the Weathermen took violent action against the conflict in Vietnam by "bringing the war home, baby." That means bombs, detonated in the heart of the good old USA. And when Merry participates in blowing up a local post office (killing the proprietor) and takes refuge with a radical cell, Swede's world falls apart.
In the mythic reach of his novel, Roth contrasts the false optimism of life after wartime with Jewish assimilation, race riots and a political fanaticism that finds current relevance in Isis terrorism. Not that McGregor's film notices; by trying to shove Roth's epic vision into a two-hour cinematic translation. hr reduces the film to an outline and the actors to cardboard cutouts. Nothing resonates, not even a reunion of father and daughter that plays as predictable when it should be shattering.
Look, it's not that all Roth novels are DOA at the multiplex: This year, screenwriter-turned-first-time director James Schamus made something fresh and vital out of the author's 2008 novel Indignation. But American Pastoral, Roth's magnum opus, needed a film revolutionary on the order of Paul Thomas Anderson, Alejandro González Iñárritu or the Coen brothers to re-imagine it for the screen. McGregor's timid approach does no one any favors, including Roth – and especially the audience.