There seems to be something of an art-house revival of interest in Philip Roth lately. Two years ago there was The Humbling, and just this year we got Indignation. Both of which were perfectly serviceable if somewhat self-indulgent adaptations of likewise serviceable but self-indulgent novels, directed by baby boomer men of the right age to have been influenced in their young adulthood by Portnoy’s Complaint.
The script for American Pastoral may have been written by boomer John Romano, but the film is directed by decidedly Gen-X Ewan McGregor in his feature debut. There’s at least something else going on here besides the usual passively chauvinist narcissism common to Roth and his ilk. We can see its shadow dancing about the edges, hinting at why this novel has become even more relevant today than when it won the Pulitzer in 1997, but the adaptation never quite rises to its potential.
The story was written in a period of relative calm for America, at least on the surface, but it looked back to the tumult of the 60s and 70s. More than a few comparisons with that era have been drawn in the last few years, and we could probably use some thought about the lessons we can learn from our past. Our mediator is regular Roth stand-in Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), who runs into an old friend at a high school reunion, who’s really back in Newark to bury his brother, Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor), and relates his tragic history to Zuckerman.
Swede got his nickname by being tall and fair in a community of swarthy Ashkenazi immigrants. He was the captain of the football team, and went off to join the Marines just in time to miss most of the fighting, coming home as proud and idealistic as he’d left. He married his college sweetheart, the Catholic former Miss New Jersey, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), and they moved thirty miles west to semi-rural Old Rimrock. They raise their daughter, Meredith (Dakota Fanning), but can’t keep her safe from the rising unrest of the civil rights struggle and anti-Vietnam protesting. Appropriately nicknamed “Merry” — like the Pranksters; get it? — she sets off a bomb in the local post office and disappears into the countercultural underground.
It’s impressive how well the symbology translates to today’s politics. Swede is, like Sweden, inclined to the left and social democracy. He may have “married” his wealth into conservative circles, but he maintains his liberal sympathies. He rides out the 1967 Newark riots with his assistant (Uzo Aduba) in his family’s glove factory, and in the aftermath makes a point of staying in the city and employing local workers rather than further hollowing out the urban center. He is a true believer in America’s outward ideals, and if he can advance the good more by using his advantages and playing the game that exists, so much the better. Merry, on the other hand, veers hard to the left, and sees her liberal father as a sellout. The whole game is corrupt, she believes, and needs to be brought down by any means necessary.
The central tension is between these two ideas: the liberal that sees the left as an overzealous extension of itself, and the left that sees the liberal as a corrupted failure. But, as we might expect from an adaptation by a mini-major studio like Lionsgate, the liberal comes off decidedly better here. There are shadows of nuance, like when Merry’s friend Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) shows up tantalizing Swede with information about his daughter. She lays into him with indictments of his liberal corruption, but they all come off toothless. Yes, they might apply to some people, but the man we see has none of these failings.
I don’t know whether Roth’s novel gave its protagonist a subtler, more ambiguous morality that might inspire some reflection on the part of a liberal readership. If it did, all those rough edges to the character have been sanded off, leaving a typically affable — if somewhat less happy — Ewan McGregor character.
Without more nuance, we’re left with a big load of Roth’s typical “why won’t all these hot young women stop coming on to middle-aged me?” prurience. And this time it’s layered over with an Electra complex, which comes of as even creepier than usual in the lack of any deeper context.
If the adaptation had to cut something from Roth’s prose, why couldn’t it be the onanistic sexuality, rather than whatever insights earned the Novel’s high critical acclaim? The answer seems clear: even as Roth fandom passes from one generation to the next, the aspects that readers are actually drawn to remain the same as ever.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.