‘American Pastoral’
Director:
Ewan McGregor
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Dakota Fanning
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

What Ewan McGregor’s “American Pastoral” does to the Philip Roth novel it adapts is the cinematic equivalent of unslinking a Slinky. He’s straightened out a non-linear hoedown, flattening a work that jumps around through its tale of a mighty specimen — a nice Jewish boy known as “The Swede,” played by the director himself — as his American dream crumbles around him. But it does worse than that. It completely removes a very important detail: That his story is not strictly what happened but partly a fiction, giant, unknown gaps filled in by the ever-randy, every-techy imagination of serial Roth stand-in Nathan Zuckerman.

Instead, Zuckerman (played with disarming decency by David Strathairn) is merely a stentorian narrator, regaling us with a story he heard at his 45th high school reunion. And so we see McGregor’s the Swede as he moves to the outskirts of Newark to raise the perfect family, with the perfect shiksa wife (Jennifer Connelly) and Merry (Dakota Fanning, eventually), the perfect daughter. Then comes the Vietnam War. The skirmish radicalizes Merry, so much that she frequently blows up on her parents, ignoring that they’re against the war, too. Then she blows up a building, killing an innocent bystander. She heads underground, and the Swede never gives up the delusion that one day she’ll return.

Credit where credit’s due: The script, by John Romano (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), doesn’t flatten everything out. It retains many of the dark and transgressive complexities of Roth’s novel, including its searching and empathetic portrayal of Merry’s plight. It keeps the Oedipal undertones of the Swede and Merry’s relationship, including a scene where Merry’s alleged sister-in-arms (Valorie Curry) drags the Swede to a hotel room, attempting to blackmail him into a shtup session.

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Then again, what is this scene doing in a movie that tells this story straight? It’s supposed to be a Zuckerman wet dream, him thrusting his own peccadillos into someone else’s life. Losing the Zuckerman angle winds up making the tale coarser than even Zuckerman could have concocted. Poor Jennifer Connelly winds up stuck with a character who becomes a hissable Stepford-bot in the final act, not the tragic figure Roth ever go carefully created.

It’s almost not worth mentioning that McGregor’s not the director who will finally make a spot-on Roth movie. Only James Schamus’ “Indignation” has gotten close, while “American Pastoral”’s well-intentioned but stiffly played scenes are simply another cinematic crime against the author’s flowing, dense, punchy prose. (He twists the knife by going full “Forrest Gump” on a stock ’60s montage set, hilariously, to “For What It’s Worth.”)

Only Fanning gets it right: While everything around her is overly tasteful and handsome, she’s volcanic, impossible to be contained, and finally withdrawn and robotic. She seems to have sprung directly from the pages of an author who forever resists adaptation. The rest simply recalls one of the book’s best passages, in which Zuckerman rhapsodizes about how we, in every interaction we have, always get the other person wrong, always reduce people even when we mean well. This movie means welll, and of course it gets the book wrong. And how.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge