Film Review: An American Affair

<i>JFK </i>meets <i>Notes on a Scandal</i> meets <i>Rear Window</i>? <i>An American Affair</i> has some promise and potential, but its main ideas remain messy and undeveloped.

In director William Sten Olsson’s romantic mystery set against the backdrop of the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis, a teenager falls for an older woman living next door. Whatever the point was, An American Affair gets lost in the muddle of the plot.

Alex Metcalf’s story starts a few months following the tense crisis in Washington, D.C., where Adam (Cameron Bright), a lonely 13-year-old, gets into trouble with the head nuns at Holy Cross School and argues frequently with his cold parents (Noah Wyle and Perrey Reeves). The boy begins an infatuation with his sexy next-door neighbor, Catherine (Gretchen Mol), who hires him to landscape her lawn—against his parents’ wishes. Soon, Adam discovers that Catherine, a divorcée and artist, is involved with the handsome young President Kennedy. To add to the mix, Catherine’s volatile ex-husband (Mark Pellegrino) starts hanging around, wanting her back.

Lucian (James Rebhorn), a gruff CIA officer, enters the scene and warns Catherine to remain discreet about her affair and, as a precautionary measure, he investigates Adam’s family life. Then JFK’s unexpected assassination upsets Adam and the world around him and another tragedy forces the boy to confront some difficult truths about what he has experienced.

An American Affair is not poorly made, but nothing about it quite gels. The screenplay clumps together fact and fiction in a less-than-convincing way, and the dialogue seems more modern than the utterances of the people of 1963. Olsson’s direction (his feature debut) is generally competent but also flat and conventional, and his overuse of Dustin O’Halloran’s piano score becomes downright clichéd. (In the print I viewed, the music drowned out some of the dialogue and the sound effects were much louder than the words spoken.)

The actors try hard, but they, too, seem to be playing characters from a different era. While Mol is appealing, she seems to be channeling Michelle Pfeiffer in the similar JFK-era romance, Love Field. Bright does fairly well as the smitten Adam (even though he is actually 16), but some of the other supporting actors are stuck playing stock characters, especially Rebhorn, who seems to have wandered in from Oliver Stone’s JFK saga, and Lisa-Lisbeth Finney as the strict Holy Cross nun, who makes Meryl Streep’s sister in Doubt look like a subtle characterization.