By BETSY SHARKEY
March 6, 2009
Seriously complicated could just as well describe "An American Affair," a mess of a film that can't quite figure out what it wants to be: an illicit love story, a political thriller or a coming-of-age set piece. Swedish director William Sten Olsson, in his first American feature, delivers instead a pileup of themes he's been handed by Alex Metcalf's screenplay, with the wreckage strewn along the street of the stately upper middle-class Washington, D.C., neighborhood where the film is set.
Gretchen Mol -- an always interesting actress that Hollywood unfortunately seems not to know what to do with most of the time -- is the mysterious femme fatale who floats through the film. As Catherine, she is many things: a mistress on her way to being dropped from the roster, a resistant CIA informer, an artist of some note spending too much time in an alcohol- and drug-induced haze, and the object of desire for 13-year-old Adam (Cameron Bright), who lives across the street.
The story is mostly built around the emerging relationship between Adam and Catherine after he spies her through his bedroom window. An adolescent boy's fantasy come true if there ever was one, she sits nearly naked just out of reach, her gaze on something distant, the smoke from her cigarette lofting slowly upward, everything about her languid and dewy. You can see the aching need in both woman and boy.
The director also makes liberal use of broadcast news clips of Kennedy and the cities he traveled through on his way to that lethal stop in Dallas -- footage that does much to set a '60s context for "An American Affair," though it never has the richly saturated feel of a period piece that you get from last year's "Revolutionary Road" or AMC's series "Mad Men."
Still, if looks were all that mattered in the film, "An American Affair" might have made a decent one, with its share of evocative shots and a moody, almost noir feel, intercut with the documentary-style news-of-the-day footage. The most beautifully unsettling shots feature Adam as he slips into a sort of "Rear Window" obsession, his camera an unblinking voyeur on the action unfolding across the street. When he's not watching Catherine, he's with her, the boy who can't be bothered to take out the trash suddenly spending hours digging up a neighbor's garden -- first after school, then anytime she will let him.
Through their encounters, the snapshots he takes and the conversations he overhears, we come to learn that the CIA is using her as an undercover courier to Kennedy. A plot laden with too many unexplained detours hits a dead end when the onetime mistress literally becomes the only way the agency can get word to the president that his life is in danger. Really?
The best thing about "An American Affair," and that list is a short one, is Mol. In Catherine, she has created a fading flower, battered and beaten down by the winds kicking up around her. Adam comes at her with both sweetness and aggression -- that she is charmed by both suggests much about what has led to her current troubles. Perrey Reeves and Noah Wyle, as Adam's parents, are wooden caricatures at best and totally unbelievable as D.C. political journalists. James Rebhorn as the central CIA heavy and Mark Pellegrino as another CIA operative and Catherine's bitter ex are menacing enough, but they appear so randomly that they never gain traction.
There are scenes that work here and there, but regrettably not nearly enough to hold the film together. In the end, this affair is definitely not one to remember.
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