In praise of eccentric dads: Welcome to The Mosquito Coast

Justin Theroux, right, Melissa George, Logan Polish and Gabriel Bateman in The Mosquito Coast.

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Both fiction and the memoir field are full of eccentric, difficult dads. If you want to write in those genres and your father was ordinary, you got nothing. Or so it seems.

One of the more memorable figures in the entire category is the father in Paul Theroux’s novel The Mosquito Coast. A non-conformist and inventor, Allie Fox moves his family to a remote spot in Central America where they can live outside of civilization and he can invent in peace. Things go awry, he turns increasingly delusional and it all ends badly. A so-so movie version was released in 1986.

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Cast aside all knowledge of the book and the movie, because the TV adaptation of The Mosquito Coast (streams Apple TV+) is totally, and especially tonally, a very different beast. It takes the bones of the plot and turns it into an anti-hero action thriller that moves at a breathless pace. It’s fun, fast and it isn’t deep but neither is it dumb. It’s a paranoid thriller in praise of a dad who is bonkers but charming, and more enigmatic than he is delusional. Throw into the mix a concise critique of American consumerism that evolves into an acute commentary about the American individualist, and you’ve got a lot to chew on.

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Allie, played by Theroux, is not so much genius inventor as he is a sketchy dude with phenomenal skills.

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First, mind you, it’s a chase-adventure. Played by Justin Theroux (who is also a producer of this version of the novel written by his uncle, Paul), Allie is not so much genius inventor as he is a sketchy dude with phenomenal skills. Almost from the get-go he’s on the run. Exactly why the U.S. government and its agencies want to capture him is kept secret, but they are relentless in their pursuit.

Allie takes his family on a wild ride. Teenage daughter Dina (Logan Polish) is fed up with her dad’s anti-consumerism, anti-authority attitude and just wants a cellphone to stay in touch with her boyfriend. Dad doesn’t allow cellphones but you get the idea he could build one from scratch in the garage. Son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) knows he’s sheltered from contemporary life but is in awe of his dad. Wife Margot (Melissa George) seems happy to keep running away with Allie.

Wife Margot seems happy to keep running away with Allie.

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After a series of wildly entertaining narrow escapes, Allie decides to take the gang to Mexico. This involves much danger, encounters with many menacing figures and a great deal of violence. In the first few episodes (three are streaming now, more follow from Friday), there is barely time to think about what’s happening. The Fox family is in permanent peril.

That’s the fun part. The meatier texture is there if you want to find it. The Mexico the Fox family uses as an escape hatch from the United States that their choleric dad hates, is obdurate and threatening. It is not what Allie Fox imagined and he and his family are obliged to think about how they have romanticized the inhospitable exotic.

Just how smart and audacious are these people who think they can escape all that’s wrong with the U.S. by crossing the border? As one of their guides into Mexico says, “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.”

Theroux is also a producer of this version of the novel written by his uncle, Paul.

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But you can ignore the commentary on this family’s quixotic search for fulfilment, if you want. The sheer propulsive pace of the drama has it surging forward, always. It is the proverbial white-knuckle ride, a gush of narrow escapes followed by yet more dangerous situations.

The series is gorgeously made with eye-popping vistas and aerial shots of the landscape that are mind-bending. There’s a subtext there too – the place that allows Allie Fox to escape is dusty, barren when compared with the lushness of the home country he hates.

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What becomes clear though, even as the dangerous adventures follow, one after the other, and the family’s survival is constantly threatened, is that the story is less about family and more about the addled, essentially selfish, motivations of dad. (Justin Theroux is terrific.) He presents his situation as an adventure for everyone, but he’s bonkers, in love with himself. And you suspect that the reason the U.S. government wants him badly is because he’s done something very, very bad.

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References

  1. ^ The 21 best TV series to stream so far in 2021 (www.theglobeandmail.com)
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