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American Pastoral Movie Review

American Pastoral: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art
American Pastoral is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray + DVD combo.

American Pastoral (2016) movie poster American Pastoral

Theatrical Release: October 21, 2016 / Running Time: 108 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Ewan McGregor / Writers: Philip Roth (novel), John Romano (screenplay)

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Seymour "Swede" Levov), Jennifer Connelly (Dawn Levov), Dakota Fanning (Merry Levov), Peter Riegert (Lou Levov), Rupert Evans (Jerry Levov), Uzo Aduba (Vicky), Molly Parker (Sheila Smith), Valorie Curry (Rita Cohen), Hannah Nordberg (Merry Levov - 12 years old), Julia Silverman (Sylvia Levov), Mark Hildreth (Agent Dolan), Samantha Mathis (Penny Hamlin), David Strathairn (Nathan Zuckerman)

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After more than twenty years in front of the camera, Ewan McGregor steps behind it to make his feature directorial debut.
McGregor has acted more in America than his native United Kingdom and his first film as director reflects that sensibility in its composition and even its title. American Pastoral adapts Philip Roth's 1997 novel of the same name, telling the story of a middle class New Jersey family in the middle of the 20th century.

We open in a nonspecific 1996, with our bookending narrator Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) attending his 45-year high school reunion. Zuckerman, an articulate and accomplished writer, marvels at a trophy case in his alma mater celebrating the athletic endeavors of Seymour "Swede" Levov (McGregor), the older brother of Zuckerman's classmate and best friend, who reveals that "Swede" recently passed away.

Swede Levov (Ewan McGregor) stops to smell the flowers with his stuttering daughter Merry (Hannah Nordberg) in "American Pastoral."

This is the story of Swede and his family. We see him fall for Catholic girl Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), who has to negotiate plans for their unconceived children's faith with his father (an amusing Peter Riegert) before they can be wed. Swede and Dawn give birth to Merry, a sweet blonde girl with a prominent stutter. Merry's teens coincide with the tumultuous 1960s. The unrest of the times breeds in Merry (now Dakota Fanning) a social conscience and activist bend. Soon, she goes from simply hanging with college dropouts and shrugging off her father's wishes for her to get an education to being the suspect in an act of domestic terrorism.

After being accused of a deadly bombing, Merry goes missing, to the frustration and bewilderment of her parents. Interested more in making an arrest than finding a missing person, the federal government is no real help. Mom, a former beauty queen and Miss Jersey, loses her mind and requires brief hospitalization. Swede is approached by a young woman (Valorie Curry) who claims to know Merry.

Is Merry alive? If so, is she capable of redemption? These questions haunt Swede, the owner of a garment factory founded by his father. If McGregor and screenwriter John Romano (The Lincoln Lawyer, Nights in Rodanthe) have succeeded, they should also haunt you as you itch to make sense of the Levov family's unraveling and hope some kind of happy reunion can occur, as improbable as that seems.

Swede (Ewan McGregor) and Dawn Levov (Jennifer Connelly) are thrown into grief by their daughter's disappearance in "American Pastoral."

McGregor displays taste different from what you might expect given his acting work. Roth is a highly respected author whose works for a long time went ignored by Hollywood. This is the third Roth novel to be put on film in the past three years. It is clear you're watching something that originated as literature and that this film won't be able to match the detail and nuance of a 423-page text.
But McGregor and Romano try their best to make this story salient and have a good deal of success at that. The final act of the film raises questions and may ask too much to maintain your emotional investment and interest. But it's never dull or predictable and you appreciate that.

McGregor actually proves to be quite confident at the helm, and better than you might expect, given the uneven quality of his recent acting output. His performance here quivers just a touch in the one scene that should be the film's emotional knockout punch. But he compels as do Fanning and Connelly in smaller doses.

Premiering last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, American Pastoral was met with reviews unfavorable enough to probably put an end to any award season hopes. But opening in 45 theaters today with the intention of expanding, the movie could find an audience from the older arthouse crowd.

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Reviewed October 21, 2016.

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