American Pastoral (2016)

American Pastoral is like an unraveling sweater, it’s got some really big problems that all start with just a few threads coming undone. Stilted acting, wooden dialog, and an unoriginal soundtrack all build to highlight an unfortunate and depressing slog of a story.

The story opens with some awkward exposition delivered with cardboard grade passion. A passionless and bland introduction that fails to even work as retrospective reverence of an era gone by. You’d almost think that the 60s and 70s were so far back that it’s not possible to engagingly communicate the context required to hold up a movie.

What’s surprising is that American Pastoral is filled with talented and capable actors who all feel like they are better than this, and you can even tell that they’re trying to do something with their delivery. It just doesn’t work though. To be fair, though you can largely rule out the quality of the acting given the large amount of affected talent.

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Given that the directing is otherwise competent, it must be assumed that the writing is the source of the stiffness here. However, capable directing is not always a good thing. By merely effectively capturing the story, and failing to impart anything remarkably good or bad, a sort of blandness results, preventing this from being a credit to the film.

These sins are subjective, and a lot of viewers may not be bothered by them, and it will certainly be fair for others to argue that overall the execution is comparatively pretty average. There has certainly been worse writing, worse delivery, and it’s hardly damning to call a film mediocre, but American Pastoral not mediocre. These smaller, and sometimes less noticeable issues, all act as highlights for the real problem here, the story.

The premise: The Swede is a near flawless example of human perfection. Exemplary at all sports, volunteered for World War II, beauty queen wife, and owner of a small business that hires a multi-cultural staff even in the 50s onward. He is kind, attentive, caring, sensitive, and when the time comes, he’s even opposed to the Vietnam war.

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During the turbulence of the sixties and seventies, The Swede’s daughter falls in with anti war revolutionaries and disappears, resulting in the slow dissolution of his life as he perpetually seeks to find and redeem her.

The overtones at best over glorify and idolize the gilded edges of a point in American history that marginalized and disenfranchised anyone outside of the the white male head of a household and business owner. A better conclusion is that the ideal core nuclear family with a strong moral core was sacrificed by social progress.

I’d argue that even audiences who are able to forgive flawed writing and underwhelming acting and directing would find it hard to slog through life just beating the crap out of a guy whose core flaw is being too perfect. As a counter point, I think The Passion of the Christ actually did pretty well, so who knows how well American Pastoral will do.

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I can’t even say that the music is a saving grace, despite being filled with powerful and emotional songs. Every movie about the 60s, 70s, and cultural revolution uses a similar soundtrack, it’s like a checklist almost. You’d be better off watching Forest Gump for the millionth time.

For me, the irritation of the dialog and writing started under my skin, the unpleasantness of the content dug at me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the overall implications of the story. It all left me with an extremely bitter and terrible taste in my mouth after the fact.

Real die hard drama fans may enjoy American Pastoral despite it being a middling film. Most should avoid this trudge through flawed mediocrity and watch something better instead.

Final Verdict:Wooden dialog and disinterested actors weaken a competent drama that is too grim and unpleasant for most.