American Pastoral

Posted on October 20, 2016 at 5:47 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some strong sexual material, language and brief violent images
Profanity: Very explicit and strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Mostly offscreen violence including riots, domestic terrorism, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Reflects the biases of its era
Date Released to Theaters: October 21, 2016

Copyright 2016 Lakeshore
Copyright 2016 Lakeshore
Ewan McGregor’s first film as a director is “American Pastoral,” based on Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a man whose good and lucky life is torn apart by the upheavals of the 1960’s. It is a thoughtful and diligent effort, but the film cannot overcome two insurmountable problems of adaptation.

The first is the timing. The book was published in 1997, the first of Roth’s American trilogy, and it described the contemporary experience of people who had raised children in post WWII era of peace and prosperity, believing that they had given their children everything they were denied growing up during the Depression and war years, only to find that they raised a generation of angry teenagers who rejected the gifts they had been so proud to present. The dismay they felt is presented in the book as evidence of nobility of spirit; today, in the midst of another era of political polarization and resentment of the first generation as powerful a demographic as the baby boomers, it is difficult to see it as anything other than representing white male privilege.

The second is the inherent challenge of any adaptation of a work of fiction. It is impossible to replicate the experience of a novel, and this one, which depends so entirely on its voice, loses a great deal of its power in the translation to a visual medium. The framing story, with Roth representative Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) attending a reunion and hearing the story that will become the movie from an old friend, is entirely superfluous, missing the essential focus of the book on the limits to our ability to understand the lives of others, even those we think we understand. Zuckerman helpfully sums it up for us: “It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful consideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

Zuckerman hears the story of “Swede” Luvov, the kind of golden boy that every high school has to have, the one who is effortlessly good at everything and so nice that you can’t even hate him for it. Swede was a superb athlete and young enough that he was drafted into the army near the end of WWII and just missed action. He returned to a hero’s welcome and married a beauty queen named Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), with the grudging approval of his parents because she was not Jewish.

And then he has the perfect life that his personal grace and talent and respect should earn. He and Dawn move to a house in the country and have cows. He takes over his father’s business, a glove factory, where they produce fine leather goods and treat their workers — mostly African Americans — well. He and Dawn have a beautiful blonde daughter named Merry and she loves them and their bucolic, pastoral life. Everything makes sense.

And then nothing makes sense. Merry (now played by Dakota Fanning) becomes an angry teenager and is enthralled by the protesters against the Vietnam War (and the patriarchy, and pretty much everything else her parents represent). She bitterly accuses: “You’re just contented middle class people.” He helplessly replies, “Some people would be happy to have contented middle class parents.”

She disappears after a post office is bombed. Swede and Dawn are devastated. He cannot stop looking for her. Dawn has a breakdown.

They all try their best, but the result is static and off-key. We are supposed to admire Swede’s decency, but the movie is slanted so precipitously in his favor that even McGregor’s palpable sincerity cannot obscure the film’s smug misogyny. The men are decent, sympathetic, patient, and virtuous. Most of the women are needy, unstable, and sexually provocative. As a child Merry asks for a kiss on the lips and then confesses that she always goes too far. These women should be happy with whatever the men want to give them. They mostly exist merely to disappoint or betray the men in their lives, and sometimes the other women, too.

Or, they are one-dimensional saints. Samantha Mathis (good to see her as always) has a brief scene as a member of the community who is philosophical after a devastating loss. Vicky (“Orange is the New Black’s” Uzo Aduba) is Swede’s top manager in the glove factory. Though Aduba is excellent, the role is limited to a bland loyal subordinate.

When there are riots outside the factory following the murder of Martin Luther King, Vicky helps Swede hang a banner out of the window that reads: Negroes Work Here. Instead of Zuckerman’s meditation on how the people who spend so much of your life envying end up having less enviable lives than your superficial, incurious assessment contemplated, it would have been much more telling to explore the world of a man who thinks that employing African Americans in a glove factory should protect him from the consequences of the system that has for so long tilted in his favor.

Parents should know that this movie includes very explicit sexual references and situations, very strong language, domestic terrorism and murder, riots, alcohol, and drugs.

Family discussion: What do we learn from the framing story at the reunion? What should Merry’s parents have done differently, either before or after the bombing?

If you like this, try: “Goodbye Columbus,” “The Human Stain,” and “Indignation,” also based on books by Philip Roth

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Based on a book Drama Movies -- format

Trailer: Indignation

Posted on May 16, 2016 at 8:00 am

Based on Philip Roth’s novel, “Indignation” takes place in 1951, as Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant working class Jewish boy from Newark, New
Jersey, travels on scholarship to a small, conservative college in Ohio, thus exempting him from being drafted into the Korean War. But once there, Marcus’s growing infatuation with his beautiful classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and his clashes with the college’s imposing Dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), put his and his family’s best laid plans to the ultimate test.

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