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MOVIE REVIEWS : FROM HUBRIS TO GOOD HUMOR : 'The Mosquito Coast'

November 26, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Peering through his gold-rimmed spectacles, "The Mosquito Coast's" Allie Fox seems to burst the boundaries of a movie screen, spewing his apocalyptic vision of America in gridlock to anyone who'll listen, and a lot who hadn't planned to. (The film opens today at the Westwood Plaza.)

A Yankee inventor whose brainchildren actually work (nine patents, six pending), Fox (Harrison Ford) is unquestioned patriarch to his family; a demigod to his oldest son, Charlie, and the worst kind of pain-in-the-neck to his boss: "a know-it-all who's sometimes right."

Sickened by an America that "buys junk, sells junk, eats junk," Fox uproots his family from their homey Massachusetts life and plunks them, on a whim, in the green and steaming coast of Honduras (though the film was shot in Belize). There he plans to remake civilization, taking the gentle inhabitants of Jeronimo, a minuscule upriver village he impulsively buys, from the Stone Age to a technological nirvana--skipping the 20th Century altogether.

It's a mad, not wholly inadmirable vision, and the same force that makes it work, makes it plummet catastrophically--Allie Fox himself.

"The Mosquito Coast" shares the same fate in Paul Schrader's adaptation of Paul Theroux's mordant and memorable novel, directed by Peter Weir and photographed by John Seale. Even with a grudging admiration for Fox's ingenuity, for his Yankee tenacity and for the "4-in-the-morning courage" that propels him, Fox's bedrock obnoxiousness makes you want to hit him with a board.

However visionary he is, he is a megalomaniac and a bully--and as he leads his family from discomfort, to danger, to murder, to fear for their very lives, it's also clear that he's going mad. But he's an irresistible force on the screen; and Harrison Ford's power--even with his back to the camera, even when we can't read his face--is terrifying.

Part of the fascination of the story is that Allie Fox does make his vision work. And at its height, his plantation is a sophisticated and even seductive place, with ice, air conditioning and a conspicuous absence of snakes or spiders the size of dinner plates.

(We may also wonder at the conspicuous lack of electricity between Fox and the wife he calls "Mother," played by Helen Mirren, a hint of the sexual tension between them that would keep a wife with four young children at the side of a man who has so little regard for their safety.)

His paradise cannot stay in balance long. It comes under attack from a specious, speechifying evangelist (Andre Gregory), who bitterly resents losing even one soul to Fox's compound, and from three renegade soldiers--led, ironically enough--to Jeronimo by Fox's express invitation.

(Part of the film's irony comes as we see Fox becoming every bit as intrusive and as big a loon as the missionaries he so despises as he ventures into escalating acts of hubris. His biggest act of folly is to carry a gigantic block of ice, made the Allie Fox way, without electricity, to inland natives, so that they may see his miracle and appreciate him accordingly.)

Half the conflict of the film lies in the horrified awakening of Charlie (played with exquisite gradation by River Phoenix) to the fallibility and growing madness of his father, whose image in the boy's eyes once blotted out the sun. The film's focus should eventually shift from father to son. But Allie Fox is too indelible a character for the reasonable transfer of power. We may not be able to stomach him, but we can't keep our eyes off him.

Director Weir is fascinated, as he was in "The Last Wave," or "The Year of Living Dangerously," or "Witness," by the displacement that occurs when an outsider bursts into a completely foreign culture. He's orchestrated "The Mosquito Coast's" action to match Fox's progressive mental state, from rage to explosion to squalls and finally to hurricane velocity; however, the film leaves us not with an apotheosis, but exhaustion.

In addition to Ford's crafty, unsparing ferocity, all the actors in this maelstrom are admirable. There is wonderful interaction between the two older boys, Charlie, still staunchly loyal to his father in spite of what he sees, and his 11-year-old brother (Jadrien Steele), chafing under their dad's sarcasm and mulishness. As the enigmatic, almost mythic "Mother," Mirren seems at first so strong and such an odd casting choice--as an uncomplaining helpmate, whipping up outfits for the entire village on her sewing machine--that you waste time wondering how she and Allie ever met. But Mirren's quiet sturdiness grows on you by the film's end. As the Foxes' exceptionally stoic 8-year-old twins, Hilary and Rebecca Gordon are charmers.

Conrad Roberts makes the family's fiercely loyal guardian angel, Mr. Haddy, a marvelous figure; and Butterfly McQueen is a welcome sight as Ma Kennywick, one of Jeronimo's inhabitants. As the pivotal Rev. Spellgood, Andre Gregory turns in a performance that has an old-fashioned, John Carradine power to its unctuousness.

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