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Apple TV+'s The Mosquito Coast is a Saga of Tone-Deaf Tourism

Apple TV+’s new series “The Mosquito Coast” wants to go there—not literally, so don’t expect something like Peter Weir’s 1986 film, also based on the book by Paul Theroux. Instead, this series more wants to press on about the disillusions that drive its focal family from America to seek refuge in a different country, namely those related to almighty, all-American capitalism. It can be good at bringing those ideas up in a few long-winded monologues, delivered with a special mania from its lead actor, Justin Theroux (nephew of Paul), playing a character who would nonetheless rather die than have an Apple TV+ subscription. But the series is far less radical than it posits—especially with plotting that turns a blind eye to the family’s inherent advantages—and the tone-deaf tourism of “The Mosquito Coast” makes for an adventure that's increasingly difficult to go along with. 

Created by Neil Cross and Tom Bissell, “The Mosquito Coast” (available on April 30) re-imagines the contemporary, mini-van driving family as anti-capitalists whose American dream is that of escape. After six different identities over nine years, the Foxes live off the grid, collecting food grease for fuel, home-schooling their kids, and hiding from the authority figures that they do not trust. Their home is a happy alternative California existence of calm blues and sunny yellows, so long as the outside world doesn’t provide cracks, like with daughter Dina’s development of a relationship with a boy that goes against the rules: no cell phones, no traces. The father, Justin Theroux’s Allie Fox, is a brilliant mind who has created a machine that turns fire into ice, a process shown to us in a snazzy inside-the-machine sequence that introduces other swooping shots from initial director Rupert Wyatt. But because no one wants to invest that product, and he has to remain anonymous, he does custodial work at a food factory where his boss drives a tacky convertible, and barely pays him. The house is in foreclosure, according to some mail Allie tries to hide from his family. As much as Allie has tried to live his life serving no master but his ego, it's ending soon. And then the cops show up. 

There’s an electric paranoia to the first couple episodes of “The Mosquito Coast,” which director Wyatt accentuates with breathtaking wide shots of waste, contrasted with a frantic getaway in the pilot episode. The show convinces us that it’s not the family who is crazy, but the structures they have been trying to avoid for years; these are not antiheroes who bend the law when they need, so much as free-thinking heroes. To protect this ideology, they go on the run and head toward Mexico, seeking refuge with the help of a dark web figure known as Calaca. Theroux’s way with words and science becomes their guiding light out of sticky situations and eventually to the border and over it; so does their stock of money, which Allie uses just as cunningly as any other confident American capitalist. With a role that can be so precious, Theroux at least conveys the intensity as someone who believes what he is selling, while being unaware that he himself is actually a smooth salesman who usually gives others a raw deal. And Theroux strikes a unique balance of being a TV version of a know-it-all dad, who can rig gears, electronics, and the like, but does so with a reckless stubbornness and mania. 

In its design of the family, “The Mosquito Coast” replicates a classic nuclear family formula but without a sharp sense of irony. Theroux’s dad will do something radical, the obedient son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) will go along with it in awe, and usually the situation causes the mother Margot (Melissa George) to state intently, which is the serious-drama equivalent of Marge Simpson’s annoyed grumble, like she’ll do something about this mess, but later. This ease in dynamics can turn the family into a type of emotional gruel, which is why the daughter Dina (Logan Polish) is the most interesting character. From the beginning she calls her dad out on his “Jim Jones bullshit” and questions the family’s way of life that nearly sabotages it. And yet there’s still something programmed in her that has her sounding just like her dad when pressed from outside forces, vomiting paragraphs about how capitalism throws away those who don’t consume. 

“The Mosquito Coast” goes through a type of disappointing conversion in its third episode, with the Fox family traveling across the border, doing something that in general is shown to be dangerous (especially when militia men are ready with guns at the border) but possible for them. With help from people who have crossed the border before, they trudge through sweltering heat and past numerous dead bodies, along with a U.S. Air Force blast zone. The moment is meant to be based in real pain—especially with its numerous close-ups of blindfolded corpses, juxtaposed with real migrants passing by—but it’s as American as slowing down to get morbid amusement from looking at a car wreck before moving along. The story uses this slow-burn episode to try to immerse us, but instead it pushes us away. 

To complicate their journey once they get to Mexico, “The Mosquito Coast” throws in some side characters who feel awkwardly transported from a comic book more than the organic world of the Foxes. There’s the hitman with a cockroach bolo tie and chilly demeanor, accompanied by a young Mexican boy who knows how to repeatedly stab people; the two bickering federal agents who try to break one of the family members, but also seem exhausted, their repartee bringing out the most cliches parts of them. For good measure, there’s even a monologuing powerful man with a British accent, who slaps Theroux across the face during one of its scenes of torture and duress, and then says, naturally, “I’ll get us a cup of tea.” These characters are chintzy supplements, and yet the series relies on them for much of its chases and scenes of tentative capture. 

There are other characters here with more emotions in the background, but who are merely mechanical pieces that come with backstories. That goes for Chuy (Scotty Tovar) who helps the family get across the border even though it’s really a dangerous idea. He suffers along the way, more than the family, but he still helps. Chuy gets in a few shots about the deadly trip he’s been coerced into, as other disposable beings do in the way that non-American characters confront the family members with progressively tinny monologues (like a French guy who upsets Charlie by making fun of America). But then the story has little use for Chuy otherwise, so his time drops off shortly after. 

As for the Foxes? It’s extremely hard to worry about them, even though that’s what the story wants us to do for each of their big, bold moves to the paradise glimpsed in the opening credits. Chalk the story’s plotting up to the Fox’s very dumb luck, or the show’s desire to be like a mature family adventure that can run multiple seasons, or the script’s interest in sometimes just skipping key developments in their journey—the series never succeeds in placing them in a lingering, rich sense of danger. The best it can muster are some sharply cut, brief brushes with death or imprisonment they soon enough find their way swiftly out of, whether the sequences involve cops, those gun-nut militia members, or the Mexican cartel. These passages that give the series its entertainment also show the series is more of a stretched-out simulation that only masquerades as a gritty, meaningful adventure. 

It becomes too reliable that “The Mosquito Coast” isn’t going to make any bold moves with its characters, and that it will lack self-awareness in the process. It calls out Allie’s American impulses to control and persuade, in scenes meant to provide the radical edge the series wants. But it distances the Foxes’ criticism of capitalism from their essential, inextricable whiteness, the optics of privilege that let them pass through so many of these dangerous spaces with ease even as obvious outsiders, starting with the deadly Mexican border. The show’s largest self-awareness is that maybe Allie’s father doesn’t know best, which is not explored enough in this first season and maybe might just lead to a divided family in the next season. It’s also hardly a bold twist. 

But the lack of real, destructive danger for this dual expedition and chase isn’t just a tedious factor about the show—it’s plainly uninvolving, like watching an invincible superhero prevail without the viewer knowing their true weakness. In its place, “The Mosquito Coast” constantly teases a mystery about what father and mother did in the past, but that also becomes tedious, a dangling carrot to get the story from one overlong episode to the next. What ever could Allie and Margot have done that lead to this secrecy and now this permanent vacation? When will we even get to said Mosquito Coast? It doesn’t feel like it really matters. The Foxes will be fine. They will be totally, overwhelmingly, frustratingly fine. 

All of season one screened for review.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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