Friday, October 21, 2016

MOVIE REVIEW/"American Pastoral"
When A Rich White Man's White Picket Fence Collapses

Ewan McGregor as "Swede" Levov and Dakota Fanning as Merry Levov in Mr. McGregor's directorial debut "American Pastoral".

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, October 21, 2016

Ewan McGregor's "American Pastoral" offers occasionally interesting characters but little resonance beyond its ephemeral gaze.  Opening today in U.S. theaters and in Canada, Mr. McGregor's directorial debut is a competent, sometimes sumptuous look at complex intra-family relations.  Based on Philip Roth's novel, "Pastoral" tracks the upheaval within a white Jewish-Catholic Newark, New Jersey family in the politically turbulent 1960s and 1970s.

Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning) is the only child of Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and "Swede" Levov (Mr. McGregor).  Intelligent, precocious and perceptive, Merry's speech impediment is viewed by a therapist (Molly Parker of "House Of Cards") not as a cry for help but a competition mechanism, a revelation which brings anxiety amongst close family members.  Sexual tension, taboos, hallucinations, obsessions and denials will roil and test the Levovs, leading to consequences that run deep. 

The film's sunny horizons are but pretense for its emerging visceral underbelly.  Early on I felt I was watching a contradiction, one which "Pastoral" appears to intend.  The film keenly chronicles escapism on numerous levels, and in a medium inviting such a pursuit makes Mr. McGregor's effort at least welcome.  Yet that is at best what "American Pastoral" is: welcome (and underwhelming).

Tidily framed and styled, "Pastoral" captures the angst of an upper-class white man's place in post-World War II America.  Swede is the golden boy sensation whose sense of connectivity to family and the American Dream is under severe threat.  He's an isolated figure out-of-step, steeped in the grandeur of fantasies that rudely explode in his face.  Americana - those traditional, safe (and typically white) symbols of it - those Rockwellian visages the director himself adeptly frames initially - are quickly replaced by the self-collapsing world those American ideals have shakily propped up.  The framing or story isn't new as much as it is polite and mannered.

Self-absorbed and patriarchal, Swede - his identity and sense of security - is explicitly connected to his notion of wealth, order, expectation, control and possessiveness of the women in his life, from Dawn to Merry to his assistant Vicky (Uzo Aduba).  Throughout "American Pastoral" Swede is either raging or fearful.  Swede constantly reacts to the changing society around him while hardly changing until he is forced to.  Even at the apex of his success (running his father's textile business), Swede is never comfortable - while the women in "Pastoral", even as their oppression is often hinted at only from the edges of the film via the dialogue of the fairer sex - are mostly calm, confident and self-determined.

With her apt name Dawn as a character (scripted by John Romano) suggests the awakening of a woman long shackled by societal image cultivation, steering, male capture and moulding.  There's a scene in which Ms. Connelly parodies and satirizes these ingredients in demened, heartbreaking style.  The scene is played as a character's frayed edges exposed.  Given the insanity inherent in keeping up appearances in a crumbling familiy, Dawn's disintegration is understandable yet instructive. 

It appears Dawn knows better than she shows.  Dawn simmers painfully throughout this stiff, self-important tale.  She's as angry at herself as she is at the trappings she's arguably voluntarily submitted to in a male-dominated realm.  Dawn is a target of the film's wrath - demonized more perhaps than she deserves, particularly in a scene which shows a superficiality that betrays the sense of credibility and complexity Dawn exhibits early on.  The film's poor writing lets Mr. McGregor down.

Smaller characters speak key lines - one telling line of dialogue is spoken by the member of a victimized family, a line that portends the future for the Levovs.  It is one of the film's few effective moments.  Often the film's women who deliver the shattering truths its men are blind to.

Still I wish Mr. McGregor had spent time looking thoroughly at the women grappling with their own anxieties and their reactions to wealthy white male turbulence rather than spotlighting the unyielding anguish Swede wrestles with.  With one exception the film's women are almost entirely too neat, convenient, embodying a perfection that itself is its own mirage-fantasy.  Even a character who appears free and autonomous still manages to echo self-entrapped fixings, even symbolically.  It all amounts to a very iffy tango of evolution and stasis.

Unfortunately Swede isn't an interesting enough character for "Pastoral" - he's a static, predictable template of fears, projections and disbelief.  Yet he is given the most screen time.  Swede is an anthem and metaphor oft-repeated in a film that should have had more substance and better-drawn women than it did.

The narration bracketing and interrupting the film is irritating and unnecessary, a device that feels too canned for the depth Mr. McGregor may have intended to delve into on the big screen, regardless of the contents of Mr. Roth's book.  Labored too are the occasional film stock of documentary footage as if to authenticate the film's atmosphere and director's vision.  "American Pastoral" doesn't seem to have the confidence to just flat out tell its own story or truth, and needed an injection of vitality and self-belief.

All in all, "American Pastoral" stands for the idea that the post-1950s Mad Men World for the wealthy upper-crust white man is hardly pastoral - it is as primal and insecure as Donald Trump's bigoted, desperate and hopeless scream.  The times they are a'-changing, as Bob Dylan once said, and Swede is holding on as the sinking sand engulfs him.

Also with: David Straithairn, Peter Riegert, Rupert Evans, Hannah Nordberg.

"American Pastoral" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some sexual material, language and brief violent images.  The film's duration is one hour and 49 minutes.

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