A glossy new TV series set out to criticize ugly Americans. Instead, it embodies them
Perhaps the most interesting thing about “The Mosquito Coast,” which begins Friday on Apple TV+, is that it stars the nephew of the man who wrote the book on which it is (kinda) based. Justin Theroux (“The Leftovers”) takes the lead in what seems intended as a multiseason variation — adaptation is not really the word — of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel about a paranoid Yankee crank who hauls his family to the jungles of Honduras to escape everything that bothers him about America, which is just about everything.
Where Peter Weir’s 1986 big-screen translation, which starred Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix, faithfully followed the lines of the book, as stripped apart and beefed up for television by “Luther” creator Neil Cross, “The Mosquito Coast” has become an antiheroic action thriller whose spiritual cousins are shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Ozark” and “The Americans.” (It’s not surprising to learn that Cross, who also penned the pre-apocalyptic cop tale “Hard Sun,” is the screenwriter of an upcoming remake of “Escape From New York.”)
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The current seven-episode season has been described as a prequel, but it’s really a substantial, substantive rewrite of the first quarter of the book, by weight, introducing different characters and new motivations, which in the seasons clearly meant to follow will lead to something that will or will not resemble the book’s ensuing chapters.
(Paul Theroux is an executive producer of the series, as is his nephew; presumably he is fine with the changes. Still, it’s as if someone decided “The Catcher in the Rye” might be improved by some chase scenes, a gun battle and a jailbreak, and that Holden Caulfield would be a more compelling character if he knew how to use a Coke can to get out of handcuffs.)
Justin Theroux plays Allie Fox, who in this telling is an underpaid freelance fix-it man for a Stockton factory farm; in his spare time he invents things, most recently a refrigerator that works without electricity. (It is important to the book and perhaps eventually here.) The farmhouse where he lives off the grid with his family — daughter Dina (Logan Polish), son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) and wife Margot (Melissa George), called only “Mother” in the book — is fitted out with tubes and vats and whirligigs for recycling and harnessing and such. Life seems good, for about a second.
In fact, it’s about to fall apart. The house is about to go into foreclosure. (“You ever wonder if Dad’s so smart, how we got so poor?” Dina, who is the clear-eyed Fox, asks Charlie.) Allie will pull his family out of the country not because, as in the book, he’s sick of it — though he inveighs against it plenty, against Republicans, Democrats, snobs, religion, “anti-vaxxers.” “In this country people eat when they’re not hungry and drink when they’re not thirsty,” he’ll say in one of the few direct quotations from the novel. “They buy what they don’t need and throw away everything that’s useful.”
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They light out for Mexico, Allie chirpily framing this forced family trip as “education” and “adventure,” with a promise of s’mores at the end. The series oddly embodies the American imperialism it seems to want to criticize: No one in the writers room or the production office appears to have noticed — unless that was the point — that nearly everyone the Foxes meet once they’re there is a criminal, an adversary or an obnoxious European young person. The one exception, if not a perfect one, is the person they bring with them: Chuy, a former coyote, played with great nuance and depth by Scotty Tovar, who has some sense of perspective and honor. (“You are America,” he’ll tell Allie, with disgust.) What’s more, they are cartoons: a cruel cartel doyenne; her dopey great-nephew; a feral child with a knife.
Even more tired is the character of an American hired killer, Bill Lee (Kerouac’s “On the Road” name for William Burroughs, who lived in Mexico for a while, avoiding a drug charge in the U.S. until he shot his wife). He’s played by Ian Hart, who first came to notice playing John Lennon in two different films, “The Hours and Times” and “Backbeat,” and more recently was seen in the first season of “The Terror.” Hart’s an excellent, interesting actor, and it’s not that he isn’t good. But the quirky hit man with retro tastes — in clothes, music and, here, typewriters — is a played-out breed, and it’s disappointing to meet it again.
There are plenty of indications Allie is not quite the righteous person he imagines himself to be, and that some of the qualities he disdains in the world he possesses himself. He has a cynical tendency to assume everything and everyone has a price, though he will haggle to bring it down. He comes off patronizing where he thinks he’s being friendly. He is anti-gun (“Anybody who needs guns already lost the argument”), but in getting where he wants to go he causes a lot of damage; people wind up dead around him, or in his wake, who might otherwise be alive. (So very Walter White.) And though he comes on as a free thinker, he is also a bit of a bully; family members aren’t afraid of him exactly, or yet, but they don’t tell him everything. (He is a poor communicator in turn.)
To the extent that it is the story of a man who can’t be told anything, a “First World” person bumbling into a “Third World” he thinks he understands, heedlessly endangering his family in the process, it shares some themes with the novel. But meaning is obscured by action as the family jumps from frying pan to frying pan to frying pan in an attempt to forestall the fire. “The Mosquito Coast” works best when you just follow along with the running and don’t think too hard about the rest, but the running itself becomes tedious after awhile. Not everything makes perfect sense, or seems remotely plausible.
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As pure craft, “The Mosquito Coast” is well made — handsomely photographed, smartly edited. There are a few metaphorical wildlife shots — a lizard here, a spider there, what I took to be a litter of baby rats (but as I had to look away I’m not completely sure) and recurring butterflies and buzzards — but little stylishness for style’s sake. The action scenes are well-staged. Hair and makeup, production design, location scouting, all are tip-top. There is nothing to criticize in the acting and in some performances much to admire. As the Fox kids, Polish and Bateman are exceptionally good; the scenes where they get to be just a brother and a sister, briefly, are best of all, and Dina’s desire for normalcy is perhaps the series’ most compelling emotional thread. George is more interesting the more at odds Margot is with Allie; there is obviously more to know about her — a few crumbs are dropped — which I suspect are also meant to reframe Allie whenever Season 2 pulls ashore. Theroux is fine; it’s the part itself that’s ill-defined, a character who can’t quite come together because the series wants him to be both hero and antihero.
It’s not that we can’t have tragic figures at the center of a story. Macbeth was not on the right track; Raskolnikov was no Kermit the Frog. But television needs to keep you coming back, and it has a tendency to want to make its worst people sympathetic, if only by pitting them against worse people. And viewers — to judge, say, by the affection for a character like Tony Soprano, whom creator David Chase took pains to point out was not a good person — tend to help them. Allie is a pain, the proximate cause of every pickle his family must be got out of, but he does get them out, and continues to get his way. And his s’mores.
‘The Mosquito Coast’
Where: Apple TV+
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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