Tilted Family Drama (American Pastoral Review)

Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor), a once legendary high school athlete who is now a successful businessman married to Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), a former beauty queen. But turmoil brews beneath the polished veneer of Swede’s life. When his beloved daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning), disappears after being accused of committing a violent act, Swede dedicates himself to finding her and reuniting his family. What he discovers shakes him to the core, forcing him to look beneath the surface and confront the chaos that is shaping the modern world around him: no American family will ever be the same. (Courtesy eOne Films Canada)

It seems like every week has a film based on a book (that I haven’t read) and this week is no different (this film was actually released a few weeks ago but it just got to me this week). This is also the second film this year based on a novel by Philip Roth, the first being Indignation. This one is special in that it is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut. I would never had guessed he’s ever be a director so I am curious as to how he does.

The film is about a man named Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor) as told by his brother Jerry’s (Rupert Evans) best friend Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) for some unclear reason. Levov was an accomplished high school athlete turned businessman who was married to a former beauty queen named Dawn (Connelly). Tragedy strikes their town when their post office gets bombed. Once their daughter Merry (Fanning) is accused, she disappears.  From then on, Swede dedicates his life to finding her and bringing her home, much to the chagrin of Dawn.

The film tracks the devolving of a seemingly perfect family over the course of time, set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Merry had to deal with a stuttering problem and along with the fact she had a beauty queen mother created a lot of self-esteem and self-confidence problems. This caused her to resenting her parents and led her on her dark path. Already disillusioned with the world which she saw coming apart on TV, she began to sympathize with the radical elements behind the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement. This made her look like the guilty party once the post office got bombed.

Seeing the evolution of her character was interesting to watch but the film glossed over this part of the plot which made her motivations not as clear. Since the focus of the film was mostly on Swede, Merry’s disappearance lacked any impact as it was easy to forget about Merry and the reason why everything happened. The focus was more on how the bombing impacted Swede and Dawn’s relationship. Each character had different reactions to what happened. Swede did not want to believe that Merry was responsible as did Dawn but she eventually came to accept it, leading her to have a nervous breakdown which just seemed weird.

The focus on Swede affected other characters as they weren’t given much of a chance. Sure, we were reminded of Civil Rights protests and anti-Vietnam protests through what was going on in the background and through historical footage but they just felt like an afterthought as it had little impact on the main plot. The film was about a father-daughter relationship where Swede is devoted to finding his daughter and bringing her back home. He becomes so consumed by this that it begins to affect his personal relationships, causing him to start drifting away from Dawn and the rest of his family. His devotion to her was real and compelling to watch.

Even though Merry was missing, Swede came across a strange woman named Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) who claimed to be a friend of Merry’s. She and Swede played a back and forth game for a little while which was fun to watch and further proved his devotion to Merry. After all of that. he finds her and this was when things started to get a little better. Through his encounters with Rita and his reunion with Merry, his views on the war were being challenged.

The acting was good all around with McGregor standing out for obvious reasons. He was excellent with a very restrained performance, portraying Swede’s inner conflict, questioning the world around him while still feeling responsible for what Merry did but still being devoted to her. Connelly was good as Dawn despite not having much to do. She was a reformed beauty queen trying to make a real life for herself but we never really got a sense of that. Fanning was good too as Merry, again with not much to do either. Her motivations may not have been clear but her chemistry with McGregor made them great to watch.

Overall, this had the makings of a great film but it’s heavy focus on Swede took too much away from the rest of the plot, leaving incomplete characters and plotlines and more questions than answers.

Score: 7/10

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