Allie Fox is a man with a lot of anger to throw around. Like Jackson Pollock using bile instead of paint, the lead of Apple TV Plus’ limited series “The Mosquito Coast” spreads his rage everywhere — including and especially on the lives of his family, whom he uproots for an adventure in Mexico. Played by Justin Theroux, Allie is a genius inventor who is infuriated by all aspects of American culture, including and especially consumerism, the way our country creates products meant to be indifferently enjoyed then tossed.
What’s surprising, then, about the show that contains Allie is how disposable it feels. Theroux, among the executive producers as well as a star, is working to adapt a novel of the same title by his uncle Paul Theroux; that novel previously was source material for a 1986 Peter Weir film that has many flaws but a clear understanding of Allie Fox’s character. Perhaps too clear an understanding: As played by Harrison Ford, that film’s Allie Fox came not merely to define but to overpower the movie. As if in response, this “Mosquito Coast” de-centers Allie and amps up the proportion of the story that’s about sketchily drawn and limply unbelievable violence and conspiracy. Increasingly from the story’s margins, Allie protests a culture that is, perhaps, the only one that could have made this series.
Consider the way Allie and his family end up in Mexico: They’re on the run from police after Allie’s daughter Dina (Logan Polish) frees him from custody in a feat of risky creative ingenuity that belies her young age. A stretchy and elastic creative universe can be a lot of fun, but this is the first of several daring bits of trickery executed by a family of “Alias”-level escape artists, and the air begins to seep out of the show as it becomes clear that the show’s imagination extends precisely as far as making their time on the lam seem exotic, rather than for a moment real. His wife (Melissa George) fantasizes about getting through Mexico and to the shore, with her dreaminess underscored by the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo”; it’s an early sign of what these characters want to use Latin America for, and how hazy their understanding is of what’s ahead.
This seems at times to be edging up to an excoriating look at American delusion. To wit, Allie’s children (his son is played by Gabriel Bateman) meet a group of students in Mexico vastly more cosmopolitan than they are. The show is critical of these snobbish scholars, but seems, too, to be raising the question of what exactly is being learned in the Foxes’ “school without walls”; Dina’s critiques of them as “bourgeoise hipster dilettantes” is both fair and so tonally similar to her father as to provide an unusually sly look at the ways in which he’s defined his family’s reality and shaped their thinking.
This is a brief side adventure, though. More often, though, the show treats Mexico as, alternately, host nation for a family’s group epiphanies and violent force pushing that family away. We meet, for instance, a mob boss (Ofelia Medina), drawn as a sort of profile in exaggerated villainy: A capo from hell, she practices silky sweetness until she threatens her insufficiently loyal deputies with scissors to the tongue. It’s a performance, and a role, that seems written in part to heighten the stakes on a show that’s already fairly tense. More perniciously, it also does a trick that is growing more and more familiar from shows including, most recently, Amazon Prime Video’s “Them” — attempting to subvert a dubious trope often put to offensive ends (in this case, the fearsome Mexican organized crime kingpin) by depicting it in such an extreme way that it explodes the stereotype.
What ends up happening, though, is that the show runs aground on this story turn. Treating Mexico as the “Mosquito Coast” — the vexed place that responds with a crisp and efficient slap back at each of the Fox family’s attempts to progress — would be a difficult needle to thread for a significantly more thoughtful show. This show doesn’t try to do much more with a setting that Americans have been conditioned for years to view as full of “bad hombres.” A monologue by a character enlisted to serve as guide for the Foxes (Scotty Tovar) states fairly plainly the problems with the family’s attitudes: “You want to run away from America, but you can’t. You’ll never be able to. Because of the way you are. The way you think you can buy people. The way you think you can buy anything you want. Take anything you want from anyone you want. And anything you don’t like you just burn it to the ground.”
That’s phrased crisply and gets at the problem of Allie Fox as incisively as can be achieved by a writer on a mission to spell out his argument. Allie hates American culture, and brings it with him wherever he goes; he cannot escape himself. It’s little wonder he comes to play a smaller role in the story than Ford’s Allie did in the 1980s: It would take a more carefully built story to genuinely explore this contradiction, rather than merely acknowledge it and try to bear it.
Theroux, an actor who, after three seasons of “The Leftovers,” could credibly be called fearless, is true-to-form strong. George, playing his wife, is given significantly more to do than Helen Mirren in the Weir film, and executes it gamely effectively in a performance that calls little attention to itself. Polish and Bateman are strong, too, and the show is beautifully shot, if at times raising the question of what so much beauty is trying to say. (A long unbroken shot over a busy worksite, in the show’s Rupert Wyatt-directed first episode, shows us in granular detail the machinations of a place that has no bearing on the rest of the story and that we’ll never see again.)
But the show’s skittish unwillingness to look hard at its characters for longer than a monologue dooms it — not to failure but to a sort of absence, making a show about people in the fight for their lives feel like something to have on in the background. What’s left, after you move beyond the biliousness of Allie, echoed by his family members, is an adventure story of four Americans confronting the hostility that lies just beneath our southern border and finding within themselves the strength to fight back. These are folks whose loudly expressed principles exist basically separately from the story they are in. It’s less that they’re inconsistent and more that they don’t matter in an action-adventure story that, give or take a monologue, does not have too much on its mind.
“The Mosquito Coast” premieres Friday, April 30 on Apple TV Plus.