The 73rd Virgin says... I had heard this was not one of the great director Peter Weir’s better movies and so I’ve been skirting and dodging it for 25 years. I heard right.
The story itself is not so improbable or fantastic, and maybe it resonated more or seemed more noteworthy in 1986, but there’s nothing unique or compelling in Allie Fox’s determination that the world is going to hell and he will instead go to a fictional upriver Central American settlement with his long-suffering family. The invention that drives him, a kind of Willy Wonka-ish icemaker, fails either dramatic test of credibility or wonder.
After “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, “Fitzcarraldo”,“How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman”, “Cabeza de Vaca”, hell, even “The Mission”, or Weir’s own “The Year of Living Dangerously”, there may not have been all that much left to say about the prospect of clueless white monomaniacs being “stupid in a no-stupid zone”. Weir seems to be riffing on Werner Herzog in several scenes, even going so far as having Ford and the natives drag ridiculously large tanks and pipes up a hill, a la Fitzcarraldo. The special effects are not that good; especially the multi-colored flames and spark-heavy explosions in one scene which scream, “miniatures”.
Perhaps more off-putting is the normally reliable Harrison Ford’s acting. It’s not that he’s bad so much as there’s just not enough of him. He was perfectly suited to the tough and suffering John Book in Weir’s “Witness”, or, say, the title character in “The Fugitive”, and everyone can like his sardonic but sincere tough guys going back to Star Wars, but here his limitations on the top end of madness helps to sink the movie. He’s not restrained or inward looking enough in the few quiet moments and, to me, he never projects a convincing sense of madness when he needs to. One can look into Klaus Kinski’s eyes in Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo and see the eels squirming around back up in there, but with Ford, he’s just a slightly more manic and fast-talking Han Solo with glasses and long hair. I never really believed he was nuts no matter how nutty his actions. All this sounds snotty, I know, but that’s how it struck me.
To belabor the point, any of Weir’s other male alter-egos, Mel Gibson, Jeff Bridges, Jim Carrey could have carried this better than Ford.
Helen Mirren and the kids are fine in less important parts and Conrad Roberts is great as the kind Mr. Haddy who takes it upon himself to watch over the family when Allie’s selfishness has put them in grave danger. Butterfly McQueen of “Gone With the Wind” makes a cameo as one of the polite natives who help the Foxs get started in the jungle, but she’s only there long enough for a close-up and a couple lines which give us time to say, “hey isn’t that Butterfly McQueen?”. Otherwise she serves no purpose. Andre Gregory as the missionary Reverend Spellgood is broad and one-note.
Ebert views it all somewhat differently - emphasis mine:
Fox is played in "The Mosquito Coast" by Harrison Ford, and it is one of the ironies of the movie that he does very good work. Ford gives us a character who has tunnel vision, who is uncaring toward his family or anyone else, who is totally lacking in a sense of humor, who is egocentric to the point of madness. It is a brilliant performance - so effective, indeed, that we can hardly stand to spend two hours in the company of this consummate jerk.
There have been other madmen in other movies who tried to find their vision in these same rain forests. I think immediately of "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," and "Fitzcarraldo," two movies by Werner Herzog about crazed eccentrics who pressed on into the jungle, driven by their obsessions. Those movies were so much more watchable than "The Mosquito Coast" because they created characters (both played by Klaus Kinski) who were mad with a flamboyant, burning intensity. Allie Fox's madness is more of a drone, an unending complaint against the way things are. It is painful to watch him not because he is mad, but because he is boring - one of those nuts who will talk all night long without even checking to see if you're listening.I just dunno. I really wanted to like it, but didn’t. Next maybe I'll try Weir's "Dead Poets Society", since I've also been skirting it for years.