I confess to having some trepidation when actors decide to become directors — especially “serious” directors. For every Eastwood or Beatty or Redford, there’s a Jerry Lewis or Sofia Coppola or DeVito (Death to Smoochy): Vanity projects doomed by ego. So when Obi-Wan Kenob… errr, Ewan McGregor, decided to make his feature film debut directing himself in an adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel American Pastoral, I didn’t know whether to approach it with anticipation or dread. A somber period drama about Jewish Americans embroiled in the tumult of the 1960s, while touching on mental disorders and family discord? What would he bring to the table? An amazing amount, actually, in this powerful heartbreaker that recalls The Prince of Tides, The Deer Hunter, The Help and Roth’s own The Human Stain.
McGregor plays “Swede” Levov, the high school star athlete who marries the gentile beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly, looking breathtaking) and settles into a stable middle-class life in a Newark exurb. Swede and Dawn happily rear their daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning as a teenager), a sensitive girl with a stutter, in the cocoon of the American Dream. But the discord of the counter-culture revolution seems to impact Merry disproportionately; she becomes a not just a disagreeable teen, but a seemingly unstable one. She rails against her parents — blandly liberal Democrats — as if they personally ordered secret bombings in Cambodia. She misbehaves, taking up with “the wrong crowd,” even though dear ol’ dad is a model of tolerant permissiveness. Something deeper is as work here; Merry seems to be an avatar of all the insanity of a generation gone berserk with racial, social and political upheaval; Swede, meanwhile, cannot accept that the unrest has deteriorated the foundations of the idyllic life he has constructed — his American pastoral existence is just an illusion.
Because this is Philip Roth, though, the metaphors aren’t as heavy as they can sound, and as a director, McGregor navigates these traps deftly. He’s not afraid to show characters, including his own, as dense, or weak, or self-deceived, but he taps into a humanity that fully resonates. You can’t help but see his side of the equation, even as you suspect he’s making huge mistakes. The love of a parent can be blinding. The performances are uniformly excellent. Connelly, who hasn’t done a lot worth noticing since winning an Oscar 15 years ago, plays the ageing pageant queen with maternal dignity hardening into icy self-absorption with measured steps. Fanning, so infuriating as the contrarian teen, simultaneously morphs into a pitiable figure with an Electra complex. Even Uzo Aduba as the Swede’s protective business assistant brings an urgency to her few scenes.
McGregor gives all of them standout moments, but his quiet unraveling is at the heart of American Pastoral, a serious and poignant story as well as a bright revelation for McGregor’s talents. The Force is strong with this one.
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.