The first is the timing. The book was published in 1997, the first of Roth’s American trilogy, and it described the contemporary experience of people who had raised children in post WWII era of peace and prosperity, believing that they had given their children everything they were denied growing up during the Depression and war years, only to find that they raised a generation of angry teenagers who rejected the gifts they had been so proud to present. The dismay they felt is presented in the book as evidence of nobility of spirit; today, in the midst of another era of political polarization and resentment of the first generation as powerful a demographic as the baby boomers, it is difficult to see it as anything other than representing white male privilege.
The second is the inherent challenge of any adaptation of a work of fiction. It is impossible to replicate the experience of a novel, and this one, which depends so entirely on its voice, loses a great deal of its power in the translation to a visual medium. The framing story, with Roth representative Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) attending a reunion and hearing the story that will become the movie from an old friend, is entirely superfluous, missing the essential focus of the book on the limits to our ability to understand the lives of others, even those we think we understand. Zuckerman helpfully sums it up for us: “It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful consideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”
Zuckerman hears the story of “Swede” Luvov, the kind of golden boy that every high school has to have, the one who is effortlessly good at everything and so nice that you can’t even hate him for it. Swede was a superb athlete and young enough that he was drafted into the army near the end of WWII and just missed action. He returned to a hero’s welcome and married a beauty queen named Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), with the grudging approval of his parents because she was not Jewish.
And then he has the perfect life that his personal grace and talent and respect should earn. He and Dawn move to a house in the country and have cows. He takes over his father’s business, a glove factory, where they produce fine leather goods and treat their workers — mostly African Americans — well. He and Dawn have a beautiful blonde daughter named Merry and she loves them and their bucolic, pastoral life. Everything makes sense.
And then nothing makes sense. Merry (now played by Dakota Fanning) becomes an angry teenager and is enthralled by the protesters against the Vietnam War (and the patriarchy, and pretty much everything else her parents represent). She bitterly accuses: “You’re just contented middle class people.” He helplessly replies, “Some people would be happy to have contented middle class parents.”
She disappears after a post office is bombed. Swede and Dawn are devastated. He cannot stop looking for her. Dawn has a breakdown.
They all try their best, but the result is static and off-key. We are supposed to admire Swede’s decency, but the movie is slanted so precipitously in his favor that even McGregor’s palpable sincerity cannot obscure the film’s smug misogyny. The men are decent, sympathetic, patient, and virtuous. Most of the women are needy (as a child Merry asks for a kiss on the lips and then confesses that she always goes too far), unstable, and sexually provocative. They should be happy with whatever the men want to give them. They mostly exist merely to disappoint or betray the men in their lives, and sometimes the other women, too.
Or, they are one-dimensional saints. Samantha Mathis (good to see her as always) has a brief scene as a member of the community who is philosophical after a devastating loss. Vicky (“Orange is the New Black’s” Uzo Aduba) is Swede’s top manager in the glove factory. Though Aduba is excellent, the role is limited to “loyal subordinate.”
When there are riots outside the factory following the murder of Martin Luther King, she helps Swede hang a banner out of the window that reads: Negroes Work Here. Instead of Zuckerman’s meditation on how the people who spend so much of your life envying end up having less enviable lives that your superficial, incurious assessment contemplated, it would have been much more telling to explore the world of a man who thinks that employing African Americans in a glove factory should protect him from the consequences of the system that has for so long tilted in his favor.
Parents should know that this movie includes very explicit sexual references and situations, very strong language, domestic terrorism and murder, riots, alcohol, and drugs.
Family discussion: What do we learn from the framing story at the reunion? What should Merry’s parents have done differently, either before or after the bombing?
If you like this, try: “Goodbye Columbus,” “The Human Stain,” and “Indignation,” also based on books by Philip Roth
We first see Reacher in a diner with his hands cuffed behind his back, a bit scuffed up but characteristically steely. A sheriff informs him he is about to be arrested and charged with felony assault of the men lying injured on the ground. He coolly informs the officers that the pay phone is about to ring and that it is the sheriff who will soon be wearing the cuffs. The officer’s derisive snort is barely over before the phone rings, and sure enough, Reacher is right again.
He has solved a problem for the military (we won’t worry about the various laws — and bones — he broke on the way), and thanking him is his successor as overseer of an investigative unit, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Avengers”). They do a little phone flirting, and he decides to go see her in DC, only to find she has just been arrested for espionage. So, now Reacher has what he loves best, an injustice that only he can make right, of such an order of magnitude that it is certain to provide many opportunities for mayhem. But there is one problem that is, for a change, entirely outside of his ability to shoot, punch, or evade. Turner’s military attorney conveniently agrees to meet with Reacher (in an officer’s club, surrounded by pretty much everyone who might be interested), and he conveniently happens to have Reacher’s file with him as well, and helpfully shows Reacher the paperwork showing that a woman had filed a child support request with the military because she said the father of her teenage daughter was Jack Reacher. The same bad guys who are after Maj. Turner are after the girl, so Reacher ends up on the run with both Turner and his possible daughter Sam (Danika Yarosh).
Pairing up again with Edward Zwick (“The Last Samurai”) and with a script by Zwick and his “thirtysomething” partner Marshall Herskovitz (with Richard Wenk), Cruise stays right in his “Mission Impossible” action hero sweet spot. The interplay with Sam gives a little balance and emotional weight to the various fight scenes and shoot-outs, without diminishing the appeal of the ever-able hero with no strings.
Parents should know that the violence in this film is borderline R with very intense action and fight scenes, chases, fights, shoot-outs and explosions, torture, hired killers, corruption, many characters injured and killed, threat of rape, some strong language.
Family discussion: How was military training and experience reflected in the choices made by both the good and bad guys in this movie? What did Jack want the answer to be about Sam?
If you like this, try: the earlier “Jack Reacher” film and the “Bourne” series
The movie awards season officially begins with the announcement of the nominations for the Gotham awards. While not all of the awards contenders are out yet (I’m expecting to see “La La Land” and “Fences” do well), this is a good indicator of the direction we are likely to see this year. I was especially happy to see one of my favorites of the year, “Everybody Wants Some!!” on the list, and the special ensemble award for the extraordinary cast of “Moonlight.”
Kelly Reichardt, director; Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani, producers (IFC Films)
Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater, director; Megan Ellison, Ginger Sledge, Richard Linklater, producers (Paramount Pictures)
Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan, director; Kimberly Steward, Matt Damon, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck, Kevin J. Walsh, producers (Amazon Studios)
Barry Jenkins, director; Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, producers (A24)
Jim Jarmusch, director; Joshua Astrachan, Carter Logan, producers (Amazon Studios)
Kirsten Johnson, director; Marilyn Ness, producer (Janus Films)
I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck, director; Rémi Grellety, Raoul Peck, Hébert Peck, producers (Magnolia Pictures)
O.J.: Made in America
Ezra Edelman, director; Caroline Waterlow, Ezra Edelman, Tamara Rosenberg, Nina Krstic, Deirdre Fenton, Erin Leyden, producers (ESPN Films)
Keith Maitland, director; Keith Maitland, Megan Gilbride, Susan Thomson, producers (Kino Lorber, Independent Lens)
Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg, directors and producers (Sundance Selects and Showtime Documentary Films)
Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award
Robert Eggers for The Witch (A24)
Anna Rose Holmer for The Fits (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert for Swiss Army Man (A24)
Trey Edward Shults for Krisha (A24)
Richard Tanne for Southside with You (Roadside Attractions and Miramax)
Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan (CBS Films)
Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman (Amazon Studios)
Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan (Amazon Studios)
Moonlight, Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney; Screenplay by Barry Jenkins (A24)
Paterson, Jim Jarmusch (Amazon Studios)
Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios)
Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water (CBS Films)
Adam Driver in Paterson (Amazon Studios)
Joel Edgerton in Loving (Focus Features)
Craig Robinson in Morris from America (A24)
Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship (Amazon Studios)
Annette Bening in 20th Century Women (A24)
Isabelle Huppert in Elle (Sony Pictures Classics)
Ruth Negga in Loving (Focus Features)
Natalie Portman in Jackie (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Lily Gladstone in Certain Women (IFC Films)
Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios)
Royalty Hightower in The Fits (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Sasha Lane in American Honey (A24)
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch (A24)
How long until next summer?