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Review: 'The Mosquito Coast' Series a Major Departure from the Novel, Movie

by Kilian Melloy
Monday May 3, 2021
Justin Theroux in "The Mosquito Coast" premiering April 30 on Apple TV+
Justin Theroux in "The Mosquito Coast" premiering April 30 on Apple TV+  (Source:AppleTV+)

Paul Theroux's 1981 novel "The Mosquito Coast" first found cinematic life in a Peter Weir big-screen adaptation starring Harrison Ford as the smart, politically aware, and somewhat erratic Allie Fox. That film hewed closely to the novel, ushering Fox and his family (including River Phoenix in the role of older son Charlie) to a Central American jungle, pausing only to introduce an American missionary named Rev. Spellgood (Andre Gregory) and plant the seeds of the conflict between Fox's dreams of an earthly utopia and Spellgood's theocratic ambitions.

The novel's central themes remain fresh after forty years, but its new adaptation - by Neil Cross, himself a novelist as well as a veteran television producer - relies more on spectacle than the political screeds that drove the film (although those do have their place in this version). Being an ongoing series, the new AppleTV+ iteration is free to slow its pace and expand in different directions, such that Allie (played by Paul Theroux's nephew, Justin Theroux of "The Leftovers" fame) is now more than a political crank; he's a full-on fugitive from some of the darker elements of the U.S. national security apparatus. When he takes his family Southward, it's not because he's chasing a utopian dream. He's trying to survive the consequences of whatever it is he's done to piss off the NSA.

Or is he? Cross and the two Therouxs (both the novelist and the actor are executive producers on this series) keep crucial information close to the vest, letting occasional crumbs fall, but the hints are vague and sometimes contradictory.

If the mystery of Allie's original sin is the carrot the show tempts us with, then its action-adventure beats are the stick. NSA agents (played by Kimberly Elise and - yay! - James Le Gros) pursue the family as they get themselves into more and more perilous situations. Human smugglers enter the picture, as does a drug cartel headed by a diabolical matriarch; eventually, a main villain of sorts emerges in the form of a comically clichéd hit man named Bill (Ian Hart), who strolls around in a black hat, armed with a knife and - more alarmingly - a network of ruthless child informers and assassins. As the season's seven episodes unfold, travails, gun battles, and daring rescues become the order of the day.

In that respect, the series takes a massive departure from its novelistic roots and embraces a mix of peak TV stylings (there's more than a little influence from "Breaking Bad") and purely kinetic schlock (there's also more than a jigger of "MacGyver" and "The A Team" in this mix).

The combination is entertaining, but also exasperating. Every episode escalates the danger; every resolution tests the bounds of believability. Crisis is king on this show, and credibility can be (and often is) dispensed with.

That's not to say the series isn't enjoyable. Just be prepared to suspend your critical thinking, stow your disbelief, and let the campy thrills roll.

"The Mosquito Coast" is streaming now at AppleTV+, with new episodes on Fridays.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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