COMING OF AGE ON CAMELOT’S FRINGE

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To dismiss An American Affair as a cliché-ridden hodgepodge of film genres (a coming-of-age story; a nostalgia-infused look at the early 1960s; a JFK assassination conspiracy complete with shady CIA operatives in dirty trenchcoats) may be an apt assessment, but it’s not quite the whole truth. Sure, the film opens with a Best Of The ’60s clips reel, as if audiences need a reminder of civil rights, the Bay of Pigs, JFK’s inauguration and all the rest that anyone even remotely familiar with American history (or AMC’s Mad Men) already knows by heart. But the movie’s final moments remain frustratingly original, a Flannery O’Connor-flavored convergence of religion, art and betrayal.

Whack a Mol: Gretchen in An American Affair.

Whack a Mol: Gretchen in An American Affair.

Ignoring the curious presence of African-American students who pick fights in the Catholic school that Adam Stafford (Cameron Bright) attends in 1963, An American Affair remains faithfully period. Adam’s middlebrow journalist parents Mike (Noah Wyle, doing his best Jon Hamm impression) and Adrienne (Perrey Reeves) are more than dismayed that he has begun spending time with their new neighbor Catherine (Gretchen Mol)—they’re downright scandalized. Catherine, you see, is one of JFK’s many backdoor visitors at the White House, and while the Staffords consider themselves cool enough to joke about their son’s frequent masturbating, they balk at the notion of his friendship with a floozy like Catherine.
Best known as the creepy little boy obsessed with Nicole Kidman’s widowed character in Birth, Bright is now a creepy teenage boy obsessed with Gretchen Mol’s divorced character, following her around Washington, D.C., and taking pictures of her from across the street. Looking fabulous in Capri pants, Mol does what she can with Catherine, but the dialogue provided her by screenwriter Alex Metcalfe defeats her at every turn. The kind of free-spirited blonde who is always clutching a cocktail or a cigarette, Catherine is prone to making radical ’60s-era proclamations like “Form is dead,” even as her sad eyes and jittery hands give her away
But Metcalfe is determined that his movie be about something more than an older woman teaching an adolescent how to be a man. So we’re treated to some ludicrous moments involving Catherine, her CIA ex-husband Graham (Mark Pellegrino) and the head of the CIA (James Rebhorn), all of whom find a reason within the Cuban crisis for Catherine perpetuating her relationship with the president. Or something. Naturally, the former wife of a CIA man keeps a no-holds-barred diary, so of course most of the film’s last half revolves around who has it, who wants it and who’s willing to do what to get it.
And just when you’re ready to abandon the ludicrous story and lose yourself in the buttery cinematography and mid-century decor, An American Affair takes a dangerous turn. Eventually as disappointed with the world as Catherine, Adam sinks down to the ground during a fight at school, welcoming a volley of punches and kicks. But as a vicious nun wordlessly watches him being beaten, Adam smiles at her, blood dripping from his lips. In that moment, religion and violence—the two great affairs of America—collide, and An American Affair takes brief flight, before crashing back to earth when Catherine’s long-foreshadowed fate comes to pass.

An American Affair

Directed by William Sten Olsson
Running Time: 93 min.

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