Given the potential for bad laughs, An American Affair has a surprising number of juicy scenes. A painter who espouses the aesthetic that “form is dead,” Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol) pays young Adam (Cameron Bright) to rip up her spiffily designed back garden—so the screenwriter, Alex Metcalf, can have them bond by messing up the lawn and spattering paint on each other and get a nice end-of-American-civilization metaphor out of it, to boot. Metcalf layers his own canvas with shades of gray. Is Catherine spying on JFK for her CIA ex (Mark Pellegrino) and his superior (James Rebhorn)? For his part, Adam is one naughty cherub: Comforting the distraught Catherine in her darkest hour, he can’t help snaking his hand into her robe.
The reason to see An American Affair is Gretchen Mol. She has a mild, natural way of holding herself that’s likably unactressy—in every film, she seems both smart and grounded. What makes her exciting is her skin, the way it flushes and gives the game away when Catherine tries to keep her feelings out of sight. Skin this sensitive, skin that can register the slightest emotional vibration, is a rare gift for an actress (the careers of Renaissance painters rose and fell on their female subjects’ coloring), and the ability to control it like this is borderline supernatural. I’d cast her in any role except a successful spy—she’s too damn transparent.