“How could a big man like you fuck up like this?” That's the question that Nathan Zuckerman fears being asked — in Philip Roth's Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral (1997) — if he were to show the book he's written about the tragic life of his old Newark classmate Seymour “Swede” Levov to Levov's brother.
Roth's novel is Zuckerman's effort to discover through fiction the greater truth of disordered facts. Zuckerman admits early on that he's certainly got much of it wrong, suggesting that his account is another of his and Roth's subjective counterlives, a novelist's effort to understand through imagining. It's not that the facts are in dispute in Zuckerman's fictionalized account of how a midcentury golden boy and his beauty-queen wife could find themselves utterly undone in the face of “the indigenous American berserk.” Yes, the Swede did inherit his father's Newark glove factory, and his stuttering teen daughter did light out from rural Jersey after blowing up a small-town post office in protest of the war in Vietnam. What's uncertain — what's made up by Zuckerman — is just who the Levovs were, what they said and what they felt. Despite its sweep and power, there's an unusual humility to Roth's novel, an admission baked into the narrative that the account we're reading is just one man's impassioned guess.
“How could a big man like you fuck up like this?” I can imagine a chagrined Roth devotee asking Ewan McGregor, who directed and stars as Swede in this staid, stagy reduction of American Pastoral. Like the novel, McGregor's film (his debut as a director) introduces Zuckerman (David Strathairn) as our narrator, sending him to a 45-year high-school reunion, where he wonders over the fate of the strapping Swede, a good Jewish kid who married the shiksa of his dreams (Jennifer Connelly) and once looked like the gilded men on the tops of the sports trophies he racked up.
The film, though, can't wrap its head around the concept of Zuckerman as author. Instead, the story of the Swede facing America's late-’60s crack-up — Newark's riots, a spate of Weatherman-style bombings — plays here as a series of flatly objective movie scenes, the tale seemingly recounted to Zuckerman over drinks. News footage shows bombs dropping over Cambodia; when the Swede picks through the inky agitprop in the bedroom of his daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning), “For What It's Worth” plays. Gone is the rich uncertainty of the novel, that zeal to sift tragedy for meaning, the sense that this is all how it might seem to Zuckerman, Roth's longtime protagonist, alter ego and excuse.
McGregor stages good and bad scenes, but almost all are mannered, lacking the brawling confidence of Roth's prose. The first-time director’s characters seem aware, at that moment, of each moment's greater significance, even in the earliest scenes, well before the war comes to Jersey. With Zuckerman's perspective stripped away, the Swede's story is exposed as a riff on Job but with a cranky edge when it comes to women: The good man is beset by a daughter and wife who each go mad, in their way, and come to detest his decency. In the book, this could be read as Zuckerman's perspective, the shape that his mind insists these facts form, the latest manifestation of the troubles with women that have animated the Zuckerman novels all the way back to that cutting jewel The Ghost Writer (1979).
Here, though, the madness of the women is simply the way that things are, right down to the young activist-runaway (the vital Valorie Curry) who — in the adaptation's most tense and skeevy scene — demands that the Swede stare at her vagina before she'll even think about telling him anything about his missing daughter. As dreamed up by lonely perv Zuckerman, that's as much a revealing fantasy as it is a jolt of horror. But as an encounter that we're meant to believe literally has happened, it's ludicrous.