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‘The Mosquito Coast’ (PG)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 19, 1986

"The Mosquito Coast" is the only movie you'll see this season that has too much ambition for its own good -- its subject, really, is nothing less than the American experience. Along with a clever and complex performance by Harrison Ford, that ambition makes for a movie that is deeply flawed, but undeniably powerful.

Ford plays Allie Fox, a crackpot Yankee inventor who fancies himself the martyr of modern America -- he loves his country so much, he can't stop berating it. Fed up with fast food, planned obsolescence, Japanese imports, the welfare state and all the rest, he packs up his family and heads for the coast of Mosquitia, a mythical realm in Central America where he creates his own little world, according to his own blueprint. It's there in the jungle that Allie's dream becomes an obsession.

"The Mosquito Coast" is drawn from Paul Theroux's novel, an equally ambitious literary effort that sits squarely within the American tradition -- a story of dreams corrupted and power misused, of invention, paranoia and the lust for a frontier. "The Mosquito Coast" can't approach the depth of Theroux's imaginative world, but it resonates within its grand thematic architecture.

While that makes for a movie as rich and allusive as any this year, "The Mosquito Coast" doesn't find a way to adequately dramatize its subject. The conflict stays mostly inside Allie's head -- he's hero, and villain and victim, all at once.

That Ford actually pulls it off is a tribute to a leading man whose very success, as a comic-book hero in the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" series, has diminished his reputation as an actor. Rattling through Allie's perpetual rant, gesturing like a windmill, hectoring and sardonic, Ford shows you the charisma of Allie's crazy idealism, but also his dark side. And also his tender, wounded side -- there is a look that he flashes his family, when he fears they are about to desert him, that could break your heart.

But if the movie's muzzy drama offers Ford a remarkable challenge, it also blurs everyone else in the movie. Screen writer Paul Schrader includes a voice-over narration spoken by Allie's eldest son Charlie (River Phoenix), and the suspicion is that Schrader saw that relationship as central, while director Peter Weir, swept up in the movie's themes and captivated by Ford (whom he worked with on "Witness"), forgot what his story was about. At any rate, the relationship isn't developed dramatically, so the narration contributes nothing besides a lazy way to connect the dots. And Phoenix reads it without skill or affect -- he might be reciting the Yellow Pages.

Like Phoenix, the fine English actress Helen Mirren is given nothing to do besides react to Ford -- she makes you understand why Allie's missus is attracted to him, but she never figures actively in the story. Andre Gregory is hilarious as the Rev. Spellgood, a "with-it" missionary flacking the "Blue Jeans Bible" and transmitting fatuous sermons via satellite from his drive-in church -- with his greasy pinhead pompadour and mobile, narrow face, he's the Huntz Hall of the avant-garde. But Allie's conflict with the reverend isn't carried through -- it's a dead end masquerading as a story line.

What's most surprising (and most unfortunate) about "The Mosquito Coast," though, is the way Weir, who elsewhere has been a kind of poet of savage lands and "uncivilized" cultures, achieves so little sublimity here. While the fine cinematographer John Seale contributes some craftsmanlike lighting effects (particularly in the nighttime scenes), the overall visual impression is bland, the landscapes plain and inscrutable. Worse still is composer Maurice Jarre's score. When he needs to convey a sense of fun and adventure at the beginning, Jarre is nowhere to be found; and later, when he's called on to create the wonder of the New World, his music is numbingly pastoral and disconcertingly oriental.

But whatever its faults, "The Mosquito Coast" offers considerable pleasure, including quirky supporting performances by Martha Plimpton as Spellgood's daughter, a saucy airhead straight out of a Pepsi commercial, and Conrad Roberts as Mr. Haddy, the compassionate riverboat captain who befriends Allie's family. And the abrasive repartee between Allie and the reverend is pure movie fun. Early on, Allie's employer calls him "the worst kind of pain in the neck -- a know-it-all who's sometimes right." In the same way, "The Mosquito Coast" is the worst kind of failure -- a near miss that's sometimes great.

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