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'The Mosquito Coast' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 19, 1986

Harrison Ford scratches an itch in "The Mosquito Coast." The strong and silent hero proves he has a way with words as the voluble Allie Fox, an inventor who leads his American Family Robinson on an ill-fated adventure in this tragi-comic adaptation of the Paul Theroux book.

Fox is a fractious, funny genius, the sort of individualist who no longer fits into the synthetic fabric of the industrial North. "Look around you," he says to his eldest boy Charlie. "This place is a toilet." Fed up with fast food and afraid of nuclear war, Fox escapes with his angelic family of five to southerly La Mosquito and an imagined utopia untainted by the modern world.

"Have a nice day, America," he says from the deck of the freighter that takes the Foxes to the Central American heart of darkness.

Trouble is, Edisons and Edens cannot coexist: Sooner or later a man of invention will pollute paradise, a grand contradiction that gives "Mosquito" its bite and Ford inspiration for his most complex portrayal to date. As a persona of epic polarities, he animates this muddled, metaphysical journey into the jungle.

The little Foxes are a rosy brood, and Helen Mirren plays archetypal Mother Fox with an eloquent, Meryl Streepish glow. She and the kids -- River Phoenix as Charles, Jadrien Steele as Jerry, and kid models Hilary and Rebecca Gordon as the freckly twin girls -- form a perfect family tableau. And Conrad Roberts becomes a part of the extended family as the compassionate Creole boatman who ferries the Foxes to their new tropical home.

This fantasy family of pliable progeny never challenges Fox's increasingly dangerous tyranny. Like "Fitzcarraldo" before him, Fox is transfigured by the tropics, a stranger in a stranger land. Theroux's theme is handily adopted by Australian director Peter Weir, who works from Paul ("Taxi Driver") Shrader's strange screenplay.

Weir, who also directed Ford in "Witness," has reworked the theme of cultural alienation time and again in such films as "The Last Wave," "The Year of Living Dangerously" and "Picnic at Hanging Rock." Here Weir wrestles with similar notions, but with an uncustomarily comic touch. So "Mosquito Coast" is stripped of its significance and deteriorates into an epic spoofed.

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