Review: An American Affair Is Not an Oliver Stone Movie

"The political intrigue is painted across a larger canvas that we're allowed to see only a tiny corner of. And that's supremely unsatisfying."

 

It was originally titled Boy of Pigs and while that makes me cringe, it's at least less mundane than An American Affair ... and it also captures the near-risibility of a movie that attempts -- with a gravity so solemn and so self-important that you want to smack it -- to conflate the sexual awakening of one lonely adolescent with so traumatic an event as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I know men are so enamored of breasts that they can lose their heads over them, but equating a 13-year-old's first glimpse of an actual, in-the-flesh pair of women's breasts with something so earth-shattering and historic as JFK in Dallas? Pul-leeze.

It's a boy, of course, whose sexual awakening is happening in the fall of 1963 (it's almost always a boy having a cinematic sexual awakening). The Marilyn type who just moved in across his Washington, D.C., street is Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol), one of those women who lolls around naked right in the window for all the neighbor boys to see -- I believe these women exist only in the fantasies of male screenwriters. This affords Adam Stafford (Cameron Bright) his first look at human mammaries outside the confines of Playboy magazine. He's delighted, of course, and instantly becomes obsessed with her and scams himself into a job for her, helping her relandscape her garden. Which allows her to indulge her hobby of flirting with 13-year-old boys -- a compulsion also limited to the fevered imaginings of male screenwriters.

This is the best part: She really is like Marilyn. We sorta learn this through the disapproval of Adam's parents (Perrey Reeves and Noah Wyle), who refuse to allow Adam to associate with her and scowl that "she's different than we are" and moan about her undefined but apparently notorious reputation -- of course, in the 1960s, the only "reputation" a woman could have was a bad one. We gather, through things that Adam overhears or witnesses surreptitiously, that she's a mistress of JFK, that her ex-husband (Mark Pellegrino) is a CIA agent, that she is scheming with (or perhaps against) "Cubans" to do something -- or maybe to stop them from doing something. Adam's father, a journalist, is preparing to leave for Dallas to follow JFK's trip there, so you know what Very Bad Thing is in the offing.

It's all presented so earnestly by writer Alex Metcalf and director William Olsson that you barely realize at the time how preposterous it all is. Intrigue! Cubans! The Bay of Pigs! JFK! It's the coming-of-age tale filtered through the mind of Oliver Stone, only far less entertaining than Stone's conspiracy theories ever are, partly because it can't decide whose perspective to take. For a long while, we are limited to what Adam sees and hears and that's fine -- when we can't grasp all the details of Catherine's life and what that notoriety of hers entails, it's merely a mirror of how ignorant Adam is. We don't understand everything that's going on but neither does he, and that could have been a nice metaphor for adolescent sexual awakening, how we try out adult things without really realizing at the time what we're doing or what it means.

But Metcalf and Olsson can't leave well enough alone. Suddenly we're privy to Catherine's conversations with her ex and with high-up CIA Lucian Carver (James Rebhorn) -- conversations that Adam is not privy to -- that move beyond the metaphor. Suddenly the political intrigue is painted across a larger canvas that we're allowed to see only a tiny corner of. And that's supremely unsatisfying.

"Form is dead," Catherine, a painter of abstracts, tells Adam, and I imagine we're supposed to take that as a clue that the ultimate formlessness of An American Affair is intentional. And at the end of the film, Adam receives a gift from Catherine that's all about pieces and puzzles and making sense of something that had seemed senseless before. Adam, however, gets all the pieces he needs. We do not.

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MaryAnn Johanson, not a frakkin' Cylon (email me)