This is a “bafflingly tone-deaf directorial debut,” agrees the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd. “McGregor (mis)casts himself as Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, a Jewish family fan and former football hero in 1960s Newark whose perfect American life comes unglued when his stuttering daughter (Dakota Fanning) bombs a post office to protest the Vietnam War.”
Adam Nayman for Cinema Scope:
The reason American Pastoral works on the page (to the point that it’s routinely voted one of the greatest novels of all time, for whatever that’s worth) is the rich and suggestive ambiguity of the framing device, in which Swede’s story is reconstructed by familiar Roth manqué Nathan Zuckerman, who idolizes his old high-school hero as a neighborhood kid made good. Here, the metafictional aspect of the book is reduced to a few short scenes (with the patrician David Strathairn as Zuckerman; I kept expecting him to wish the audience “good night and good luck”), and we’re meant to take everything absolutely straight, including Jennifer Connelly’s faded beauty-queen psychosis as Mrs. Levov, Valorie Curry’s villainous Basic Instinct (1992) act as a nasty jailbait radical, and Dakota Fanning’s bratty/shell-shocked overacting as Merry—a holy feminine trinity to befuddle even the most decent, upstanding family man. The whole production feels verged on the perch of camp, and would be very satisfying if packaged as a genre spoof; maybe call it Roth Hard?
“What we have on our hands is a dud, but there are a few grace notes that save it from being an unmitigated disaster,” offers Jordan Hoffman in the Guardian. “Swede’s glove factory ends up being at the epicenter of the Newark race riots and while McGregor’s reliance on newsreel footage is cheesy (and sets up similar shots of the Moon landing, Woodstock and another use of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What Its Worth’ on the soundtrack, so help us all) it does touch on how well-meaning liberals react in the face of potential revolution. Swede proudly boasts his factory employs ‘80% Negros,’ but yanks his daughter back in fear when she tries to give a black power salute to a group of men who may or may not be forming an angry mob.”
“McGregor and screenwriter John Romano can only scratch the book’s ambitious surface,” writes Screen‘s Tim Grierson. “Nonetheless, American Pastoral is sufficiently moving when it digs into Swede’s troubled relationship with his beloved only child, whom he perceives as the culmination of his blessed existence.”
“Groping for grand tragedy and finding only actorly melodrama, shooting for political contrarianism but landing instead on reactionary conventionalism, American Pastoral is as flat and strangled as its source is furious and expansive,” adds Andrew Barker in Variety.
Updates, 9/12: “The movie plays like a compelling late-season episode of Mad Men, riffing on generation-gap tensions,” writes Time Out‘s Joshua Rothkopf. “But there’s something deeper in the book that McGregor and TV-vet screenwriter John Romano miss. The film somehow remembers to digitally create an in-construction Twin Towers in the background of a night’s drive, but it doesn’t get at the cosmic ruination of Roth’s critique of faith, nor the character traits that make Swede so emblematic of a certain era of American Jewish success.”
Update, 9/13: “Directing and being the actor is all part of the same thing,” McGregor tells Chris Knight in the National Post.