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What if a boy's coming of age included a relationship with a woman in her 30s, a free spirit who paints and who numbers the President of the United States among her lovers? In Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1963, junior-high student Adam Stafford becomes obsessed with his new neighbor, Catherine Caswell. He steams open her mail, reads her diary, peers into her windows, and hides in her closet. CIA agents notice him; he sees them meet with her and with an anti-Castro Cuban. She hires Adam to work in her garden, and they become friends of sorts. Is theirs an American affair? Written by
COA=Coming of Age. It's a set and somewhat stilted genre by now, and _An American Affair_ does little to change that. Young Adam Stafford is isolated in the all-too-predictable World He Never Made: parochial school, iconic period parents cloaked in gray clothes and rote emotions, and females constantly pushing him away for no clear reason. We get the sense Adam's supposed to be Somehow Special - maybe because he's an only child, maybe because he's the big-eyed, callow, Pure Boy - but he's really just inert, a force to be acted upon by the grown-up world.
Gretchen Mol's Catherine is really the only flame of real humanity in the film, the only one not acting out a role of someone acting out a role. The actor who brought Betty Page back to life a few years ago had matured fascinatingly since her days as a pretty bauble. Now we see her without the black wig and fetish gear, and she's a real presence. Her role as Sexy Bourgeoise Bohemienne is contrived - cool jazz, drugs, and a patently silly finger-paint ballet with Adam - but she has a genuine emotional vulnerability that most of the film lacks.
The subplot of neighbor Catherine's involvement with Jack Kennedy - who apparently will talk to the CIA only through her - is not well integrated. As a result, it feels obligatory, as if it's there to beef up the COA story (and perhaps add a little commercial zing). It does provide a counter-irritant to Catherine's sensuality in Lucien and Catherine's ex Graham, the Agency men easily reduced to masculine role-icons. Lucien is so buttoned up he seems almost deliberately awkward, and Graham taking what we're supposed to believe are the only outlets from his masculine role - drinking and rage towards Catherine.
Director Olsson is, of course, working with archetypes - Cold War Washington folk - but he never lets them get beyond their icon status. Particularly telling is his handling of the JFK assassination moment - the parochial school kids left to stand pointlessly in line as all the sisters gather at the television. The news is spread only by Adam, the special boy, who whispers to the pupils - and a silent overhead shot as they scatter like birds in a Paris park. Again, a dance of roles and distance, too stylized by half.
Here's a hint, Mr. Olsson: Camelot wasn't so long ago that you have to play it as somber as a medieval allegory. (What does it say that _The Tudors_ had more men in crew cuts than your vision of 1963?) People - CIA men maybe excepted - did approach one another as people, and European directors often miss that American ease. Ironically, that same ease was what made John Fitzgerald Kennedy so irresistible - not just to his many feminine liaisons, but to his country and the world.
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