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Peeking Into the Presidential Suite

MOVIE REVIEW
An American Affair (2009)

Still8
Screen Media Films

In "An American Affair," director William Olssen has chosen a story that seems ripe for cinema: the Cuban missile crisis, a young boy coming of age, a stranger next door and all that great imagery of America during the Cold War. The film starts out strongly enough, with photographs and footage of President John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro as the opening credits roll. With these two charismatic leaders pitted against each other, the stage is set for action. But the writing, acting and directing all suffer from major weaknesses that threaten the foundation of the story.

Cameron Bright plays Adam Stafford, a 13-year-old boy living a mostly sheltered existence, despite some brush-ups at the integrated Catholic school he attends. His parents (Noah Wyle and Perrey Reeves) are self-involved journalists, and his problems mostly concern his crush on a female classmate. All this changes when Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol) moves next door. Catherine is an artist, and much is made of her "free spirit." She paints large, abstract paintings. She wants to dig up her garden. She often sits half-naked in her windowsill, smoking a cigarette.

It is this last point that mostly intrigues Adam, who becomes enamored of Catherine from across the street. He objectifies her in all the typical, well-worn ways that reflect our own voyeurism: watching her through binoculars, taking covert photographs of her, and even pasting a picture of her head onto the body of a Playboy centerfold. Under the guise of helping her with odd jobs, Adam enters into her life, which happens to include being one of President Kennedy's girlfriends. In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Adam and Catherine become enmeshed in a fair amount of political intrigue and drama.

Physically, both actors fit the bill perfectly. Ms. Mol is a classic beauty and Mr. Bright looks like he just walked off the set of "Leave It to Beaver." But Mr. Bright's lines are delivered flatly and dully, without any sense of Adam's inner imagination or spark. His character appears to be more horny than sensitive, so lines like "I want to paint with you" fall flat. And unlike the intergenerational relationship portrayed by Kate Winslet and David Kross in "The Reader," which felt natural and erotic, there isn't that same chemistry between Ms. Mol and Mr. Bright, despite their flirtations. The actors aren't helped by the writing either, which forces people to talk out loud to themselves after others leave the room ("Don't fuck this up, Jack") or repeat themselves for emphasis in a way that is so painfully counter to real-life dialogue.

Ms. Mol does an admirable job at attempting some depth into a character that is pretty shallowly drawn, but Mr. Wyle's performance is the high point of the film. As Adam's distant, awkward father, he plays what could be a stock character with wry humor - a sort of wink at the audience. He has terrific comic timing, but is able to swing into anger just as convincingly. While at first he finds Adam's interest in Catherine amusing, once that relationship has political implications for himself, he furiously forbids Adam to see her.

As Adam tries to sort out his feelings for Catherine, the story devolves into a political thriller with a high-drama climax that ultimately rings false. While historically the U.S. government is no stranger to murder and machinations, this particular plot involving a stolen diary just doesn't feel plausible. The film ends with Adam receiving a package from Catherine, which contains many small abstract paintings. When assembled, they form a pretty boring painting of Adam's face. It's not a particularly electrifying ending, but it seems to be a fitting analogy for the film: a number of interesting, even beautiful elements combined into one very mediocre whole.

AN AMERICAN AFFAIR

Opens on Feb. 27 in Manhattan.

Directed by William Sten Olsson; written by Alex Metcalf; director of photography, David Insley; edited by Scott Chestnut; music by Dustin O’Halloran; production designer, Vincent Peranio; produced by Kevin Leydon; released by Screen Media Films. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Gretchen Mol (Catherine Caswell), Cameron Bright (Adam Stafford), Perrey Reeves (Adrienne Stafford) and Noah Wyle (Mike Stafford).

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