Tales by Paul Theroux inspire two new films

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.

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.

What keeps ``The Mosquito Coast'' from being a great movie is too much caution. The action sometimes seems dictated more by camera logistics and editing strategies than by its own primal emotions and stormy logic. Perhaps in the service of economy, moreover, the movie fails to reproduce some of the novel's key insights regarding Father - such as his son's harrowing realization that it's really a search for comfort, not adventure, that drives Father in his bizarrely uncomfortable journey.

Like the picture's visual style, Harrison Ford's portrait of Father also seems too calculated. Father is deeply intelligent, but he's also seriously unhinged, in ways that interact directly and complexly with his intellect. Ford's verbal inflections and body language stress the cerebral Father over the driven, passionate Father - even though feelings, not ideas, ultimately play the most intense and stirring role in his story.

This is not to deny the real achievements of Weir and his collaborators in splashing much of the novel's tension and suspense across the screen. It's also worth noting that, in this age of movie excesses, they have considerably softened the ending of the story - not changing its outcome, but omitting some lurid twists that were among the book's weakest inventions.

And the supporting performances are splendid. Helen Mirren brings Mother, who barely exists in the novel, poignantly to life. River Phoenix is equally strong as Charlie, the narrator and second-most-important character. The hapless boat captain named Mr. Haddy is exquisitely played by Conrad Roberts, and Andre Gregory strikes a perfect balance of satire and sincerity as Reverend Spellgood, a missionary who buzzes around Father like a particularly infuriating gnat.

``The Mosquito Coast'' is a typical Weir movie, venturing into a world that's unfamiliar to most of us and playing out a dramatic story that's decisively molded by its setting.

But like the recent ``Witness,'' which also teamed Weir and Ford, the new film seems less awestruck by what it depicts - and less awesome to the viewer - than earlier Weir pictures, from ``The Last Wave'' and ``The Plumber'' to ``Gallipoli'' and ``The Year of Living Dangerously.''

Weir is growing more confident as a filmmaker, but he's also losing the nose for mystery that was once his most exciting trademark. I hope he recaptures his sense of wonder one of these days.

``Half Moon Street,'' the other new Theroux-based movie, takes its story from a book of the same name, containing two short novels about people leading double lives. ``Doctor Slaughter,'' which inspired the film, deals with a scholarly woman who spends her days as a foreign-affairs researcher, her nights as a prostitute.

Where the novella is pithy and pessimistic, the movie is rambling and romantic. The filmmakers have every right to expand and amplify Theroux's terse episodes, of course, especially since his tale is no masterpiece. But they've done such a poor job that they lose the point of the story: the protagonist's belated realization that her quest for amoral power and freedom has led to weakness and degeneration.

Sigourney Weaver brings a stiff kind of dignity to her part, when she keeps her clothes on. Michael Caine, as a politician she falls in love with, flails helplessly with dreadfully written lines. Bob Swaim was the director.

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