The Mosquito Coast review: Justin Theroux deserves better than this flat, generic Apple TV+ series
The Ozark/Breaking Bad-mould action-adventure needed a more ambitious script than familiar streaming-era templates.
“We drove past Tiny Polski’s mansion house to the main road, and then the five miles into Northampton, Father talking the whole way about savages and the awfulness of America — how it got turned into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger zone of rabid scavengers and criminal millionaires and moral sneaks. And look at the schools. And look at the politicians. And there wasn't a Harvard graduate who could change a flat tire or do ten pushups.” Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast began with this unforgettable passage about the book’s main character, the eccentric inventor Allie Fox, as seen through the adoring gaze of his teenage son Charlie. The comic energy is impressive enough, but the real strength of this passage lies in its economy: in just a couple of lines we already know that Allie is domineering (“talking the whole way”), a judgmental ideologue (the bit about Harvard grads and flat tires) and that his son has begun to uncritically adopt his views about “the awfulness of America”.
Unfortunately, economy and astuteness are largely absent from Neil Cross (the creator of BBC’s Luther) and Tom Bissell’s TV adaptation of The Mosquito Coast, the first season of which releases on Apple TV Plus today. Justin Theroux (incidentally, the nephew of author Paul Theroux) turns in a commendable performance as Allie Fox, swinging between emotional rigidity and snap decisions with adroitness. The cinematography and camerawork are similarly impressive, marking ambitions with a pair of stunning long takes in the first episode itself. But the show’s writing ultimately lets the admirable cast and the source material down in a big way.
Quite simply, the series does not tonally resemble the novel at all. The novel is a tragicomedy, a cautionary satire about one man’s ideological obsession and the perils of American exceptionalism. Allie Fox is sick and tired of American consumerist excess, and what he perceives as the resultant dumbing down of culture as a whole. He whisks his family — long-suffering wife Margot (Melissa George), and teenagers Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) and Dina (Logan Polish) — away to the eponymous Mosquito Coast across the Honduras-Nicaragua border, eager to escape the trappings of modernity including technology. Throughout the book, however, Allie’s pet peeves and reckless nature keeps landing the family into increasingly dangerous situations.
Cross and Bissell’s show, however, transforms this into a flattened, generic, Ozark/Breaking Bad-mould action adventure, complete with stereotypical ‘coyotes’ (people who help you cross borders illegally), over-the-top Mexican gangsters and so on. Every episode is determined to send the Fox family headfirst into harm’s way at warp speed—and bring them back from the brink in a scattershot way. This works when your protagonist is a ‘lamb among the wolves’, like in Ozark or Breaking Bad’s first seasons. We’re curious about how these men will adapt to situations far beyond their comfort zones. Allie, however, is an egocentric blabbermouth control freak who’s convinced he can buy, scam or cajole his way out of any situation — the scrapes he gets into, therefore, are much more predictable and the emotional stakes are lower.
Allie and Margot, moreover, are already on the run with their kids from the very first episode — and we don’t really know why until deep into the last couple of episodes. By the time this (not very believable) explanation comes, it’s far too late, narratively speaking. I must admit, this narrative choice struck me as either cynical (keep the bait dangling for viewers) or too expansive for its own good (assuming they provide more back story in future seasons).
Another problem is the exposition: the writers seem to be perpetually keen to remind us that Allie is a stand-in for the same terrible aspects of American culture he is running away from: he is brash, naïve, confrontational and is under the delusion that everybody in the world (but him) is beholden to the dollar. An otherwise secondary character even spells this out in an extended monologue addressed to Allie: “You want to run away from America, but you can’t. You’ll never be able to. Because of the way you are. The way you think you can buy people. The way you think you can buy anything you want. Take anything you want from anyone you want. And anything you don’t like you just burn it to the ground.”
And if you feel this is on the nose, Margot’s own naive attraction towards the idea of a Latin American escape is scored to… The Beach Boys’ ‘Kokomo’. You know, the syrupy sing-along that goes: “Aruba, Jamaica, oh I wanna take ya / Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama / Key Largo, Montego, baby why don’t we go”. So it’s not like subtlety is the guiding principle here. Which is a shame because the cast members do their best with the scripts they get. Theroux and Melissa George may well see Emmy nods coming their way, in fact (Theroux more so, not least because he was snubbed for his incredible performance in The Leftovers). Logan Polish steals every scene she is in, practically, right from the first time she swears at her loco dad (“that’s some Jim Jones bullshit!”) after he confiscates yet another cheap cellphone from her room. The Jim Jones reference is also apt because Allie is, after all, less a family man than the leader of a cult of four.
In the end, however, it’s not nearly enough as The Mosquito Coast stumbles towards a finale that feels, somehow, both rushed and tardy at the same time. If Apple does renew it for a second season, these actors deserve a much more ambitious script, one that does not flatten their characters into familiar streaming-era templates.
Rating: 2 (out of 5)
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