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Tales by Paul Theroux inspire two new films

By David Sterritt / November 21, 1986



New York

TALES by respected author Paul Theroux are the basis for a pair of new movies. ``The Mosquito Coast'' is gripping and provocative. ``Half Moon Street'' is a mess. ``The Mosquito Coast'' is an adventure story and a family story. But on its most fascinating level, it's a portrait of one person: a mechanical genius, university dropout, and compulsive individualist named Allie Fox.

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His 14-year-old son, who narrates the story, calls him Father - and so do most other people, swept off their feet by the sheer force of his personality. He's a thinker who rarely stops concentrating, and a doer who rarely sleeps. He's also a talker who rarely shuts up, to the amazement of his companions, who are often plain folks with no idea of what he's jabbering about.

Father lives in New England with his wife and four children, and when he looks around his country, he doesn't like what he sees. The air is polluted, the water is foul, the earth is poisoned. People work joylessly, then spend their wages on decadence and frivolity. Meanwhile, the nuclear missiles pile ever higher. Anyone can tell the end is near - or could, by simply listening to Father.

The story takes off when Father takes action. Packing his family onto a forlorn banana boat, he bids civilization a sarcastic farewell and heads for a new life in the Honduran jungle - which most of us would call unlivable, but Father calls unspoiled.

There he buys a parcel of land (it's a town, really, called Geronimo) and sets about building an ideal community based on hard work, common sense, and old-fashioned ingenuity. Plus a few odd notions that Father can't bear to part with, no matter how much trouble they cause him.

One of these is a hatred of missionaries, whom he considers his natural enemies. Another is a conviction that ice, of all things, is one of nature's most precious gifts. Since there's not a whole lot of this in your average subtropical forest, it becomes Geronimo's task to build a refrigerator as large as a building - known as Fat Boy and destined to play a weird and tragic role in Father's odyssey.

Father is at the center of everything that happens in Geronimo and vicinity: His character is the fulcrum of the story, and his energy is the motor that drives it. Yet the Mosquito Coast itself plays a vital role, too, providing an infernal backdrop that shapes and directs the increasingly frantic action. The key to motion-picturizing Theroux's novel, therefore, is to etch Father's portrait as vividly as possible - while matching his loony dynamism with an environment that's every bit as unstoppable as he is.

In their carefully thought-out film, director Peter Weir and screenwriter Paul Schrader come commendably close to meeting this challenge.

Their images and words capture not only Father's flaky mixture of good intentions, intellectual arrogance, and blind self-indulgence, but also the ferocity of the murky jungles and swamps that threaten to devour him and his loved ones. Rains, rivers, and tortuous pathways take on feral personalities, becoming full-fledged participants in the tale. Facing the insults they hurl at him - always at his own mute invitation - Father grows still stronger as a character, greeting each setback with a fresh burst of demented energy and a new set of rules and theories that's even more obsessive than the last.