As a general rule, I approach directorial debuts from actors with a sense of caution. By no means is it a hard and fast rule that actors don’t make good directors, but just as often as not an actor’s understanding of what constitutes good acting direction does not effectively translate into the skill necessary to direct every facet of a feature film. This is the struggle that Ewan McGregor faces with his directorial effort, American Pastoral. Though, to be fair, the brunt of this film’s failures does not necessarily fall on his shoulders alone.
Set in 1960s Newark, New Jersey, McGregor stars as Seymour “Swede” Levov, a former high school football star who married the local beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). Together they raised a girl who, in her teenage years, turned to radical politics and began to hate everything her parents stood for. Her name is Merry (Dakota Fanning), and one day she disappears after the local post office is blown up with a homemade pipe bomb. Swede desperately spends the next several years looking for Merry as his home and social lives fall apart around him.
To start this analysis on a good note, McGregor is very clearly an actor’s director, and he gives a pretty tense and emotional performance in just about every scene that necessitates it. There are moments where the film comes alive with the extreme pain and emotion these characters are experiencing, and in isolated instances there’s a glimpse of what the film could have been.
Unfortunately, what McGregor is unable to sustain is an emotional consistency that would have made the film engaging. This is a film that confuses slowness with meditativeness, so while it rarely slips into being outright boring, it isn’t the intense thrilling mystery that it so clearly wants to be. McGregor also seems much too willing to focus on the familial conflict in the story without delving into the sociopolitical context that caused Merry’s angst-driven unrest in the first place. Lurking around the edges of this film is a narrative that encompasses an entire generation’s revolutionary rebellion, but American Pastoral is content to be about a man whose daughter—and eventually wife—abandon him as a world changes without him. Without that greater context, though, McGregor’s film comes across as a whining, bitter indictment of teenage rebellion and willful femininity, and though I admittedly have not read the novel that the film is based on, it feels as if that is missing the point.
As mentioned, the blame isn’t entirely McGregor’s, though, as John Romano’s screenplay is a veritable trainwreck. Rife with monologues, clichés, and characters constantly posing hypothetical questions for dramatic effect, it plays as the most severe sort of melodrama in the story that clearly wants to be as grounded in reality as possible. Despite the actors’ best efforts, this bleeds into their performances so that even with McGregor’s direction they seem to be in the world’s most highly budgeted high school production. Connelly in particular comes off particularly hysterical, both in the sense that her character loses her mind and that it’s unintentionally hilarious watching her overact her way through ridiculous lines.
American Pastoral is a bad movie, but it is at least fascinatingly bad. There are so many choices that are so odd that it is baffling how many seeds of greatness are hidden amongst the infertile wasteland of this production. If nothing else, it has made me want to read Philip Roth’s novel just to piece together what could have or should have been. For now, though, the main thing to take away is that Mr. McGregor isn’t quite ready to take on the monumental task of directing. Sorry, Ewan.