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Alan Pergament: 'Mosquito Coast' is an intense, frustrating family adventure series

Alan Pergament: 'Mosquito Coast' is an intense, frustrating family adventure series

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Justin Theroux stars in a TV adaptation of his uncle's novel, "The Mosquito Coast."

For Justin Theroux, “The Mosquito Coast” is an all in the family adventure based on his uncle's novel.

To the family he leads, the travel adventure occasionally feels almost like child endangerment as the father Theroux plays, Allie Fox, puts the family into numerous precarious situations that ultimately even leads to his teenage children becoming criminals to survive.

By the end of the intense, seven-episode series premiering Friday on the streaming site Apple TV+, viewers who enjoy the suspense highlighted by a compelling musical soundtrack may still walk away unsatisfied and feel like they’ve traveled seven hours for no good reason.

That could be because the suspenseful finale sets up a second season, which required some things to go unanswered.

To say the finale is a disappointment is almost as big an understatement as saying we are living in the age of climate change.

Allie is a MacGyver-like figure and inventor who detests American consumerism and isn’t particularly likable. He takes his wife (Melissa George) and rebellious daughter Dina (Logan Polish) and supportive son Charles (Gabriel Bateman) on an exciting and at times violent, wild ride while running from the government and assassins because of something to do with one invention that frustratingly isn’t fully revealed.

As breathtaking as the scenery is, as energetic as the music is and as exciting as some of the dangerous situations Allie takes his wife, son and daughter are, the finale ends in such a preposterous way that the whole series almost feels like a waste of time.

This prequel version of the adventure novel by Justin’s uncle, Paul Theroux, written 40 years ago is reinvented for television by British novelist and screenwriter Neil Cross (“Luther”).

It follows the 1986 movie in which Harrison Ford played Allie in a cast that also included River Phoenix as his son Charles.

In a video call interview with the nation’s television critics, Justin Theroux said he first read his uncle’s novel when he was 12 or 13.

“And there's been a movie made of it so I've obviously, sort of seen many iterations of it,” he said. “This was just one of those happy accidents that the stars aligned and we were able to do it.”

He noted the changes in his character from the novel to the series.

“This is Allie seen through a slightly different prism,” said Theroux. “But as with any great character, I think you'll see an evolution to this character … which I hope you continue to like. But, yeah, I just really responded to the initial couple scripts and that was sort of it.”

Naturally, he called Uncle Paul.

“It would be foolish not to sort of dip my cup into the well of the source material and the man who wrote it,” said Justin Theroux. “I also, sort of anecdotally, have an intimate knowledge of certain aspects of Allie Fox, because it’s our suspicion, or my suspicion, and it’s been corroborated, that it’s based loosely on certain members of our family, my grandfather, who had a certain thriftiness to him. So I had several long conversations with Paul once I got the script, and I started preparing the character.”

Director Rupert Wyatt noted one “deviation” from the novel.

“This is a family that, perhaps, is not making this journey voluntarily,” said Wyatt. “I think that's the big difference. And, obviously, in the source book in the novel itself, that was a choice made by Allie, specifically, to make the journey.”

One critic asked how Allie, who detested commercialism and the industrial waste of modern technology, would feel about the show being on an Apple TV platform.

“That's such a good question,” said Cross. “I do not have an answer prepared for you. I think that it is in the nature of our version of Allie that he is not a man who espouses any particular philosophy. Whatever you've got, he’s going to reject it. So, Allie would reject to seeing himself portrayed in a high school play or on Apple TV+ or on a Vista Vision screen in 1953. Whatever you've got, Allie rejects it. It doesn't matter what it is.”

Cross said one of the goals of the show was to honor Paul Theroux’s creation.

“Part of the intention of the show is not just to honor, if that's not too strong a word, what Paul did with Allie Fox and the creation of the standing character, but to engage in some way with Paul Theroux’s entire world view both with the novels he’s written and the travel literature that he’s written with all of which I'm very, very familiar,” said Cross. "So I choose to write, I guess, what excites me and thrills me and frightens me, and challenges me, if that makes any sense.”

And what did Paul Theroux think of the new version of his novel?

“I think honestly he was thrilled,” said Justin Theroux. “I don’t know. I mean, there’s something so odd. If it were another author that perhaps wasn’t a family member I might be – I would be far more intimidated and have been in the past in previous roles.

“I know he’s seen it and is thrilled at what we’ve done with it. So I think Neil was very smart to take some very bold moves and sort of create, as we’ve said, sort of a prequel to the book itself, but stay very true to the Allie character and the way he operates.

“We haven’t talked about my performance necessarily, but he did call me quite thrilled after he saw several episodes.”

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TV Critic

Alan Pergament has had a variety of roles at The News since 1970, including as a news and sports reporter. He has been the TV columnist since 1982, with more than year off for good behavior. He is a member of the national Television Critics Association.

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