Friday, October 21, 2016


Over the years, there have been many actors who proved to be just as talented behind the camera as they were in front of it. Way back when, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock set the template, and following in their footsteps were big-time names such as Redford, Gibson, Foster, Eastwood, and Affleck. Here in 2016, fan-favorite actor Ewan McGregor gives the director’s chair a try for the first time; tackling the award-winning and heralded novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL.

Nathan (David Strathairn), attends his 45th high school reunion and learns the fate of an alumnus, Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor), who was a star athlete, war hero, and successful businessman. Swede marries his high school sweetheart Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and they have one daughter, Merry (Dakota Johnson)…who eventually joins a violent movement against the war in Vietnam and tears her family apart.

AMERICAN PASTORAL is a film which has many balls in the air. On the surface, it’s a story about Merry and her eagerness to belong to something. The early goings of the film take us through her early years in which she developed a stutter, and her very close relationship with her father. As one incident leads to another and the war in Vietnam escalates, Merry rebels against the perfect American-dream lifestyle that her parents have built…and goes into an ongoing angry protest-mode with eventual deadly consequences. It’s a study on the American dream and how insolated it can be from real-world problems. Deeper than that, it’s explores the unraveling of a family and how parents react to a child who hates their guts and vanishes for years at a time…with Swede remaining steadfast for his want to get his daughter back and Dawn falling apart before putting the past behind her.

While the groundwork is solid, McGregor’s inexperienced hand behind the camera is evident. Instead of the gentle touch that the material seems to be begging for, McGregor uses a machete instead of a scalpel. Scenes feel cobbled together, choppy, and don’t flow naturally. Actors blurt out their lines as if they’re on a stage yelling at the cheap-seats, and the dialogue is painfully ordinary and often overstates the obvious. Overall there’s a blandness to the film; scenes which should be drawing emotional punches just come and go with no impact, and Merry is portrayed as such an unlikeable brat it’s hard not to hope for her to get run over by a truck.

Aside from everyone yelling everything out loud, acting is all over the place. McGregor mis-casts himself as the lead, not looking or sounding anything like a Jewish-American and his British accent often sneaks back in. Jennifer Connolly has just as many moments of cardboard acting as she does amazing, with a long, unbroken shot of her unraveling the highlight of the film. Dakota Johnson is fine, but her stutter is not convincing and it often sounds like she’s mocking someone. David Strathairn is excellent as always, and the show is stolen by first-timer Ocean James, who in playing Merry at age eight, does a better job than Fanning at selling the stutter.

The finale goes for a big emotional wallop but misses badly, and instead ends very awkwardly with little feeling of resolution for any character. It’s hard to tell if McGregor was better off acting in this and giving up the chair, or if he should have been behind the camera the whole time…as AMERICAN PASTORAL comes off as very unbalanced. Its coasts along thanks to the strength of the source material, which feels like it needs a whole lot more than what’s seen here.


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