“Form is dead,” asserts Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol), a self-styled painter and vivacious beauty. It’s 1963, and her words impress her 13-year-old neighbor Adam (Cameron Bright), feeling as alienated as he imagines her to be. He resists her injunction at first, eyeing one of her recent completed canvases. “They’re just color,” he protests. She sighs, “Things are what we make of them.”
Before An American Affair is over, you can be sure that Adam will have mulled over this conversation — a few times — and come to a new appreciation, of art, formlessness, and Catherine. Indeed, he gets his first chance in the very next scene, when she takes him outside to show him her garden, which she wants him to landscape (he has asked for work “around the house,” in order to cover up when she busts him for snooping in her window). Unkempt but lavish, the place looks in need of trimming and maybe some minor rearrangement. That’s not exactly what Catherine has in mind. “Rip it all up,” she instructs. “We’ll start all over again, nothing boxed, nothing constrained.” Adam nods eagerly: “Form is dead!” Yes, little grasshopper, you have much to learn.
Much of this learning is voyeuristic. Adam spends long minutes watching Catherine through her window, as she entertains various men in her bedroom, looking coy, sultry, and sometimes hurt, typically with breasts exposed. He digs out his birdwatching binoculars, then finds a camera (his parents are journalists, so perhaps this is why he has a long lens at the ready), which he clicks away as the screen shows black and white stills — blurry images of lusty acts, some abstracted to the point of near formlessness. During each of these lusty gazing sequences, the soundtrack is suffused with earnest plinky piano, sounding like dated Lifetime fare, Adam is duly transfixed. Then he locks himself in the bathroom to jerk off (his father’s voice at on the other side of the door: “You working hard in there?”).
Though Adam has kissed his perpetually plaid-skirted Catholic school classmate Faith (Laura Astri), she is not nearly so lush a fantasy as Catherine, whose likeness to Marilyn Monroe is underscored by the film’s clunky inclusion of over-explanatory archival footage — black and white montages of Martin Luther King Jr., JFK and Jackie, Vietnam war door-gunning, as well as Monroe herself. When Catherine appears before a sod-covered, sweaty, post-working Adam all freshly bleached and white-dressed and red-lipsticked, he’s about fit to swoon. When she flirts with him, she begins to look a little too needy, while he looks increasingly vapid and cartoony.
This particular fantasy is doubly underscored by the fact that Adam spots a late-night visit from JFK himself, arriving by official black car and attended by Secret Service agents. As Adam deduces, she’s not just any of “Jack”‘s many lovelies, but the ex-wife of a CIA operative Graham (Mark Pellegrino). He appears in variously drunken states to deride her new beau (“He’s got a string of women and he fucks ’em all!”), but she’s got another pot going, reporting on her assignations with the president to Graham’s boss, CIA mucky muck Lucian Carver (James Rebhorn, looking especially imperious and aquiline when he meets her in Georgetown). She thinks she’s protecting the president, but it’s soon revealed, as Adam begins to follow her and then her associates, that she may be inadvertently involved in a conspiracy with the CIA and the Cubans to get the man killed. Where oh where is Tommy Lee Jones when you need him?
This mishmash of faux history, period melodrama, and coming-of-age clichés gets old in a hurry in An American Affair. The pretense toward context is helped along by Adam’s parents’ ostensible familiarity with local goings-on. Both Adrienne (Perrey Reeves) and Mike (Noah Wyle) are journalists, though mostly they attend cocktail parties. He makes sure you hear that “The Cubans are never going to forgive Kennedy” for the Bay of Pigs, and she worries that Adam is spending too much time with Catherine (“She’s different from us, she doesn’t care about the same things”). When dad is assigned to go to “Texas for Thanksgiving,” mom is put out because she’ll be left alone with their increasingly uncommunicative and unfathomable child, but you know exactly why he’s going to Dallas.
Adam’s own trajectory is plainly less interesting than the plot he’s watching from a distance — mostly on TV. Here the film lurches to greater depths, as Adam watches reports of the assassination on a television he peeps through a door at school. Following a lingering image of Walter Cronkite removing and replacing his glasses, the camera cuts to the reverse shot, panning over a tearful nun’s face on the way to settling on Adam’s face, not exactly comprehending. He heads to the schoolyard to spread the news to his friends, whispering into individual ears as the camera cranes up and out until it’s looking on them from above, a milling, confused crowd of kids who will be affected for the rest of their lives by this national trauma. In case you had any doubt, now you know. Form is not nearly dead here, but is instead trite, predictable, and overwhelming.