A film exploring the frailties of the American Dream couldn’t be more relevant, yet there’s little that rings true in this adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the generational shifts in post-war American politics. The novel occupies a profound place in the US literary canon, so it seems an odd vehicle for Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, who is neither American, Jewish nor blond.
None of these things stop him playing all-American good guy Seymour “Swede” Levov, a Jewish high school athlete with Nordic good looks. After a brief stint in the Marines, he takes over his father’s glove factory in New Jersey, marries local pageant queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and dotes on his precocious daughter Merry.
To the casual observer, it seems Swede has it all. But Nathan Zuckerman, an old school friend, is disavowed of this notion when he bumps into Swede’s brother at a school reunion. He recounts a 20th century tragedy that begins with the post-war can-do optimism of the 1940s and ends with social unrest and the Vietnam war in the 1960s.
The catalyst is Merry, played here by Dakota Fanning, who quite literally blows up her parents’ hope of a quiet, affluent life in the suburbs by planting a bomb in the local post office in a protest against their humdrum consumerist existence.
A reliance on hackneyed devices – archive news footage, story-within-a-story, voiceover-narration – leaves a cheesy aftertaste that’s more akin to Forrest Gump than American History X. It’s miscast across the board, too; Swede isn’t convincingly tempted, Merry isn’t convincingly redemptive and Dawn is reduced to little more than a pretty face.
Without characters you can believe in, all that’s left is a hollow, unrelentingly bleak morality tale. It’s the film adaptation 2016 deserves.