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When the American Dream becomes a nightmare

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Ewan McGregor and Dakota Fanning in “American Pastoral.”Richard Foreman/Lionsgate Films

Philip Roth has had better months. The 83-year-old legend of American letters was just last week passed over for the Nobel Prize in Literature — again — this time in favor of Bob Dylan. And a new movie based on Roth's 1997 novel "American Pastoral" offers proof yet again that this writer's great literary gifts are almost impossible to translate to the screen. Roth is a protean American inner voice. The movies, sad to say, remain better at exteriors.

The new adaptation feels wrongheaded in several major ways. "American Pastoral" is a story of the post-World War II immigrant dream of assimilation smacking into the 1960s and unraveling with a vengeance. It needs to be focused and unrelenting on the screen and it should be peopled with characters to whom we immediately relate, both as individuals and as stand-ins for the larger cultural moment.

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The director is the British actor Ewan McGregor. It's his first time behind the camera (aside from a 1999 short); and while he gets the look and the sound of the times generally right, the film lacks momentum, punch, energy. "American Pastoral" wanders fretfully, convinced that "something's happening here" (to quote the Buffalo Springfield chestnut that surfaces all too predictably on the soundtrack) but never fully connecting with the freedoms and fears of its era.

More problematically, McGregor has cast himself as Seymour "The Swede" Levov, a golden boy of World War II-era Newark, and — to his classmate and the film's narrator, the longtime Roth stand-in Nathan Zuckerman (David Straithairn) — the rare Jew allowed to disappear into the Promised Land of the goys. A tall, fair-haired football star, the Swede comes back from the war and marries Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), a shiksa queen and former Miss New Jersey. He settles in the high WASP paradise of Old Rimrock, in Morris County, and takes over the glove factory run by his father (Peter Riegert). He has a beautiful, blond, precocious girl child. He blends. America works.

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Until it doesn't. "American Pastoral" is mostly about the fractured relationship between the Swede and his daughter, Merry, who is played as an increasingly furious teenager by Dakota Fanning. Adapted from the novel by John Romano ("The Lincoln Lawyer"), the film dramatizes the Newark riots of 1967, the rise of the radical left, and the bombings of the early 1970s, and it keeps returning to the middle-aged hero as he wrestles with a daughter he reveres — who he hoped would be the American he secretly knows he's not — but who rejects everything he and his generation stand for.

This is a rich and relevant story, obviously, and it might have fared better as a TV mini-series, where novelistic plot strands can be unpacked at length. McGregor is simply wrong for his role: He's too young, too modern, too smart. The Swede is a good man who's naively optimistic about his place in the world, and the star dramatizes this by making the character uninteresting. The glimmers of ironic wit that can serve McGregor well in a movie like "The Ghost Writer" or even as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, have no place here, and while he temporarily convinces you he's not British, he doesn't sell you on the notion that the Swede's a genuine son of Newark.

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Worse, "American Pastoral" doesn't feel lived in as an American movie. Riegert conveys several lifetimes of immigrant weariness as the Swede's father, and the scenes in the glove factory, with its loyal African American workforce held together by Uzo Aduba's office manager, have an awareness of the racial cross-currents of this country's strivers and strugglers.

But Connelly is lost in a role that makes sense mostly on paper; late in the film she gets a mad scene that makes you cringe for both Dawn and the actress playing her. Fanning's Merry remains an angry cipher to both her father and the audience, but not in a way that compels you to want to solve her.

The narrative framing of the novel, in which Zuckerman attends his 40th high school reunion and hears the story from the Swede's brother (Rupert Evans, in gluey old-age makeup), distances us further. Only Valorie Curry, as a mercurial friend of Merry's who leads the Swede by the nose for the second half of the movie, cuts through the studied remove. (The actress was the only good thing about the recent "Blair Witch," too. Keep an eye on her.)

Curry and a couple of cinematographic moments that stop you in your tracks with their rightness — Martin Ruhe shot it — are all that keep "American Pastoral" from total inconsequence. One of those moments, though, is the film's final shot, which summons the poetic sense of mystery for which the director has been striving the entire time. That's something. But it's not nearly enough.

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½
AMERICAN PASTORAL

Directed by Ewan McGregor. Written by John Romano, based on the novel by Philip Roth. Starring Ewan McGregor, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Connelly. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton. 126 minutes. R (some strong sexual material, language, brief violent images)


Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.