For over two decades, Ewan McGregor has proven to be one of the most versatile and underrated actors in the business. McGregor has an eye for subtlety and the ability to make the most of weak material, carving out a unique career from most performers of his era. McGregor’s directorial debut, American Pastoral, solidifies two things regarding McGregor’s career; his talents as an actor are continuously improving, and his remaining career would best be served in front of the screen.
Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor) is the pinnacle of ’50s America, a high school foot ball star turned factory owner living with his teenage sweetheart Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and their daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning). Swede is indifferent to much of the political turmoil of the era, but when his daughter begins to join a group of radical anti-war protesters, his life is put in peril. When Merry is implicated in the bombing of a post office, Swede embarks on a journey to save his family without sacrificing his values.
A film like American Pastoral is an actors’ piece, but like any performance piece its dependent upon the script. This is where the film falters; the dialogue is relentlessly unsubtle, placing the film’s themes directly within the script without any attempt to use visual imagery or ambiguity. Instead of taking advantage of the format of cinema, the film meanders from scene to scene with the drama feeling more and more melodramatic as the film goes on. The characters ultimately feel like tools used to spew the film’s repetitive rhetoric, and while the intention was to make the film tragic, it”s ultimately a bore.
Like many first time directors McGregor can establish a good looking movie with relatively acceptable scene structure. But when it comes to the film’s structure, its awkward time jumps and lack of a strong narrative cause many of these virtues to be lost. When the film reaches its conclusion, there’s no emotional through line to leave an emotional mark. On top of that, the melodramatic dialogue handles each scene so poorly that the potentially powerful ideas are laughably handled at best, and cringe-worthy uncomfortable at worst.
McGregor commits with his performance, and his nuanced role as a well intentioned everyman is by far the best part about the film. However, the generally reliable Jennifer Connelly falls victim to the script’s shallow writing, and succumbs to overacting in nearly all key emotional scenes. This issue also plagues Dakota Fanning, who’s roles as a rebellious, stuttering teenager ridiculously misses the mark, with a completely unbelievable stutter and a complete lack of conviction.
When asked to describe the film following my screening, the best I could provide was “if Ordinary People was directed by Tommy Wiseau”. I’m not sure exactly what wrong with the film, and while it’s not a cynical nightmare like Independence Day: Resurgence or the Transformers films, it’s one of the biggest disasters of the year, wasting great source material on a boring, infuriating melodrama. Few hold Ewan McGregor in such reverence as I do, but perhaps his career will and should peak with acting alone. Grade: C-