Series Review: A very different trip to “The Mosquito Coast”

Perhaps you remember the 1986 Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix movie “The Mosquito Coast,” about an American family caught up in the “self-reliance” genius and mania of a father who decides to shed the corrosive culture of ’80s America and move them all to the jungles of Central America. Maybe you remember the acclaimed Paul Theroux novel it’s based on.

If you don’t, no worries, I do. I read the source novel back then, too. And no, that’s not necessary or even particularly helpful in tackling the new Apple TV+ series starring Theroux’s nephew, Justin Theroux. Truth be told, remembering Peter Weir’s descent-into-madness tragedy, set entirely on the titular coast of Honduras, could be more of a hindrance to enjoying this new take.

This “Mosquito Coast” is basically a prequel, an updated/gunplay-packed “how we got there” tale of a family on the run, of the mishaps, escapes and deadly encounters with the cross-border human and drug smuggling trade that gets so much attention in the culture and the media of today.

None of this “get away from Reaganism/consumerism/TV-rot” of our “doomed” civilization of the ’86 film, in other words.

We meet Theroux’s Allie Fox as he and his brood (Melissa George plays wife Margot) are living on the edge on a rented farm in California’s central valley. Allie is keeping them afloat in a maintenance job with Big Ag, running their vehicles on bio-diesel of his own concoction, raiding the county dump for inspiration. Son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman in the River Phoenix role) is his Dad’s biggest fan.

“How do you make ice from fire?” was and remains Dad’s big obsession, an invention that can bring cheap refrigeration to the bush. It’s getting him nowhere, only he won’t let go of it.

“It’s not genius if they don’t reject it, first.”

But Charlie and older sister (impressive newcomer Logan Polish) have their suspicions about their parents. They’re always having to move. Why?

“Did you ever wonder, if Dad’s so smart, how we got to be so poor?”

Dad’s an ill-tempered wild-eyed dreamer and Mom’s secretive. Their world is uprooted again, but of course Dad has planned for that eventuality, when government agents (Kimberly Elise and James Le Gros) come calling.

Now would be a good time to hightail it South of the Border, to fulfill Dad’s latest dream — a liveaboard boating life, off the grid on “The Mosquito Coast.”

Most movies make this sort of “escape” seem easy, or at least dramatically perfunctory. This series gives us a better taste of how somebody on the lam might manage that border crossing north-to-south.

How do you even find someone, a “coyote,” to get you across? Where would you try it, how much water would you need, how much money would it take?

And what on Earth will you do when it all goes wrong?

That’s the driving impetus of this take on Theroux’s novel (Paul Theroux took a producer credit.), nutty Allie’s mastery of this seat-of-the-pants, improvise, lie and hustle on the fly existence and how he’s enlisted his family in that lifestyle.

They will meet and cross drug lords, see death and cause other deaths and be hunted not just by mysterious Feds and their minions, but an assassin (Ian Hart in a black suit, porkpie hat and scarab bolo tie), all as they struggle to live the patriarch’s “Kokomo” fantasy in a paradise of his own creation and not in a world where he doesn’t fit in.

Putting more of the emphasis on daughter Dina than the younger, impressionable son, would pay off better if there was more of a struggle for her soul. Her pushing back is belated and underwhelming. George (“Turistas,” “Dark City) plays a less passive version of the spouse of the ’80s “Mosquito.” Margot has assertive flashes that stand out because she’s constantly, inexplicably caving to Allie’s whims.

Justin Theroux (“The Girl on the Train”) doesn’t do “larger than life” well. This Allie is a salesman and something of a con artist, not menacing enough to impose his reality on everybody through force of will. His “tough guy” moments are few because they don’t play.

I found the series to be somewhat unmoored, lacking the subtexts of the original source material. Here it’s all about the violence, the “MacGyver” ish escapes.

It’s also jumpy and disjointed, dropping the Fox family and us into situations that have already been covered by other films and limited series — meetings and meals with drug oligarchs, facing down hired killers in matching black Suburbans in lawless stretches of Mexico, etc.

What we’re meant to accept is how this lifestyle and Allie’s survivalist ethos has made everyone in this family capable of sizing up a situation and boldly charting a way out of it. That stuff — with this instant getaway driver or that get-the-drop-on-the-bad-guys — is pure hokum.

The action beats deliver, but there aren’t quite enough of them in each let’s-drag-this-odyssey-out episode to justify the investment in time. That’s a common gripe I have of the streaming era — drip, drip, drip storytelling.

Still, if you come into this without the expectations taken from the novel and/or the earlier film, you might not be as annoyed and let down by the whole journey into Allie Fox’s “Heart of Darkness” as I was. The “hokum” you’ll figure out on your own.

MPA Rating: TV-MA, violence

Cast: Justin Theroux, Melissa George, Gabriel Bateman, Kimberly Elise, Scotty Tovar, Kate Burton and Ian Hart

Credits: Created by Neil Cross, based on the novel by Paul Theroux. Premieres April 30 on Apple TV+ release.

Running time: Seven episodes @ :42-58 minutes each.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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