|Mosquito Coast, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Sunday, 19 December 1999|
Harrison Ford's character in THE MOSQUITO COAST is aptly described by another character in the movie as "The worst kind of a pain in the neck -- a know-it-all who's sometimes right." The movie depicts what happens when he is spectacularly wrong.
Ford plays Allie Fox, a brilliant inventor -- nine patents, six pending -- who dropped out of Harvard, and who has been making a shaky living for his wife (Helen Mirren) and family. His eldest son Charlie (River Phoenix) narrates the story, adapted from the novel by Paul Theroux by screenwriter Paul Schrader. Peter Weir directed.
Allie talks constantly, endlessly, sneering at the commercialism of the United States, cynically certain that the entire culture is going to collapse into anarchy at any moment. He's convinced of his own brilliance, sure that everything he says is true. Charlie has always nearly worshipped his father, but he's begun to suspect that maybe his dad isn't necessarily the font of wisdom he believes himself to be.
His near-paranoia is increasing, and he's also becoming more and more impractical. Hired by a neighboring farmer to create a new kind of air-conditioning system for his asparagus crop, Allie instead creates an ice-making machine, sure that the farmer will recognize the device for the brilliant innovation it is. The machine really is a phenomenon, but the farmer needed something far simpler -- and which did something else.
This is the last straw for Allie. He promptly packs up his family and they walk out the door; their dirty dishes are still in the sink. He's bought the small town of Geronimo in a fictional Central American country (the movie was shot in Belize). He is certain that they've narrowly evaded the collapse of civilization.
He's also always on the lookout for signs of the encroachment of what he considers malign influences, like the missionary (Andre Gregory) they meet on the cargo steamer to Central America. Charlie is briefly attracted to the missionary's forthright daughter (Martha Plimpton), but little comes of this.
When they reach Geronimo, some miles upriver from the coast, everyone but Allie is dismayed. He's full of buoyant optimism, and at first, he's right: everything goes as planned, though it takes long hours of hard work. The house they build by hand is attractive and practical; the vegetables prosper -- and even the three-story ice machine he builds works like a charm.
The problem is that Allie is also rigid and unyielding; he can shape the environment to his needs, but he's without resources when he meets with resistance, even opposition. He's so arrogantly convinced of his rightness, and so stunned when he's proven wrong, that his mind -- but not his ego -- begins to crumble.
Peter Weir is the fine director from Australia whose American films have varied in quality, but have always been worth seeing, from GREEN CARD and WITNESS (also with Harrison Ford) on through THE TRUMAN SHOW. However, despite many fine moments, and an extraordinary performance by Ford -- perhaps his best -- THE MOSQUITO COAST doesn't entirely work.
The ultimate point of the movie, why this story was told, is unclear. We're never invited to agree with Allie; we can see some of the things he complains about, but even from the first scene, his observations are questionable. He sneers to Charlie about how society is falling apart, but what we see is average, everyday America, not the seething cesspool of decay and corruption that Allie is sure surrounds him. Even at the very end, Allie hasn't changed his views one iota (he's convinced that America has been literally destroyed); his family has -- his wife and son have learned just how fallible, quixotic and even dangerous Allie can be.
But they're not the central characters; Allie is. Charlie is almost entirely an observer -- his narration continues throughout -- so we can't really identify with him. And Allie is impossible to identify with; he's hard even to like. Weir was bold in casting the immensely likable Ford as this arrogant, cracked genius, and Ford is courageous in his complete dedication to the role. But it makes THE MOSQUITO COAST an easy film to admire, but a hard one to like.
The story also has a strange structure. When Allie and a puzzled group of helpers head off into the jungle looking for a particularly primitive tribe -- he's convinced the big block of ice they're hauling will dazzle them -- they inadvertantly get the attention of some mercenaries, who follow them back to Geronimo. This results in a spectacular sequence, but that's followed by a trip downriver, the establishment of a new settlement, and a storm. These sequences are so strongly divided it's as if THE MOSQUITO COAST includes the original movie and its sequel. And then, there's a long dying fall to the end. This kind of thing works well in novels, but movie audiences aren't prepared for what looks mostly like an adventure movie to become less exciting as it goes along. This may explain why the film was anything but a boxoffice success.
But it's probably more because of the nature of Allie Fox, a genius misplaced in time and space, who can't even recognize, much less reconcile, his own divided view of the world. He's techno-happy, great with machines, plans and designs, but he detests the modern world -- which runs on machines, plans and designs. Instead, he takes his family into a dangerous part of the world, primitive and isolated, and tries to pound it into his world, but lacks the flexibility necessary to deal with unexpected problems.
Oddly enough, though, THE MOSQUITO COAST works much better on video than it did in theaters. There's a certain distancing that home video cannot shed, even in the finest home theater systems; it's simply not like watching a movie. It's not necessarily worse, but it is necessarily different. This kind of remove from the action works to the favor of THE MOSQUITO COAST; we don't feel we have to identify with Allie Fox, but can dispassionately observe him. The story's odd rises and falls are more easily dealt with in a comfortable, relaxed home environment than in the more formal setting of a theater. It is one of a handful of movies that is actually better at home.
A side note: two divergent streams in theatrical history accidentally converge in THE MOSQUITO COAST. Early on, an annoyed clerk is played by Jason Alexander, and in the jungle, one of the women in Geronimo is played by none other than Butterfly McQueen, Prissie of GONE WITH THE WIND.