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Ewan McGregor’s ‘American Pastoral’ falls flat


Jennifer Connelly, Ewan McGregor, and Hannah Nordberg in ‘American Pastoral’

What happens when a festival darling flies too close to the spotlight’s glare?

Every year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) kicks off and with it, the golden hopes of several titles, since TIFF, along with the festivals in Telluride, Venice, and New York (which all jockey for position during this rather crowded calendar block between late August and the end of September), helps to introduce the slate of films that will strive to carve out a generous slice of the box office earnings during their openings, while building steady buzz en route to garnering and winning the coveted awards from the filmmaking branch guilds, the critics and people’s prizes, and of course, the Academy’s top honors. And every year, without fail, a handful of these aspirants stumble and fall before reach the starting gate.

An infamous non-starter from last year, “I Saw the Light” arrived on the scene with the pedigree of a thoroughbred. Rising star Tom Hiddleston (best known for his scene-stealing turn as Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) taking on the role of country-western icon Hank Williams, singing and playing every note himself, with the equally intriguing Elizabeth Olsen (who broke out in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) going note for note with him as Williams’s wife Audrey. I seized the opportunity to interview one of the actors (Casey Bond) who played a member of the Williams backing band, with the intention of adding my voice to the anticipated groundswell of support that would bolster the film during the heated awards season, but a deafening silence spilled out of theaters as the festival screenings ended, with critics and audiences racing on to the next big thing.

Very little time is spent performing detailed autopsies on these DOA’s, because the focus, by necessity, is on the carrying the eventual nominees towards the finish line. From the standpoint of a critic in the midst of the scrum, I simply don’t consider, going into the festival experience, the likelihood of a film suffering a miscue (or not living up to the hype). I want every film to sweep me up in its narrative and performances, to transport me to another place and time, another life.

Which is why, this year, I watched sadly, as “American Pastoral,” the directing debut of Ewan McGregor failed to take flight. Adapted from author Philip Roth’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, it, like most of Roth’s works, centers on questions of identity (dueling Jewish and American perspectives), keying in on the experiences of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov (McGregor), a hardworking man who, in the late 1960s, confronts the changing social dynamics when his daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) gets involved in the violent protests of the day. The film documents the shattering of his seemingly perfect middle-class existence via a more contemporary account told to Roth’s fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn).

With the country caught up in tense political debate and an upswing of unrest, “Pastoral” should have been a compelling reflection of a similarly dark period, and while McGregor deserves respect for tackling such a challenging assignment his first time out the gate as an actor-director, the end result lacks the radical spirit of the times and the novel. Instead of tapping into the explosive radicalism of the burgeoning movements (far beyond the peaceful Civil Rights marches and sit-ins), “Pastoral” distracts us with questionable casting decisions, starting at the top with McGregor as Levov.

The ‘Swede’ is supposed to represent the all-American Jew, the star athlete in high school, the soldier who served during WWII (towards the end of the war), the man who came home, married a beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly), and settled into an idyllic life. But, I spent most of the film unable to accept McGregor as this quintessential Jew. In a narrative so dependent upon defining identity, this marks a fatal flaw.

Coming into the festival McGregor and “American Pastoral” weren’t dogged by scandal, like Nate Parker and “The Birth of a Nation.” That spectacular flameout – from its enviable launch at Sundance earlier this year to the impact of the revelations surrounding Parker’s past indiscretions – was a media tsunami of epic proportions. The fall of “Pastoral,” smaller in scale and scope, rests on the merits of the film, which means that this tumble, certainly unexpected and humbling, is one that McGregor and company will be able to move on from without any lingering concerns, in typical American fashion. (tt stern-enzi)