REVIEW: Philip Seymour Hoffman's Jack Goes Boating Is Well-Crafted But Still Waterlogged
Jack Goes Boating, Philip Seymour Hoffman's first time out directing a feature film, is such a gentle picture that at times it threatens to drift off the screen. Hoffman plays Jack, a going-nowhere, reggae-loving New York limo driver who appears never to have had a girlfriend. His closest friends, married couple Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), decide to set him up with one of Lucy's new co-workers, Connie (Amy Ryan) -- she works phone sales for a slick funeral director-bereavement guru, though she's so awkward and tentative in this new gig that she's in danger of losing it.
Jack and Connie hit it off, sort-of, and though it's the middle of winter, Connie expresses her desire to go boating in Central Park. Jack nervously sets up a possible date -- it will have to happen a few months down the line, after the weather gets warmer -- and then panics, because he doesn't know how to swim. Clyde offers to teach him, and this is the beginning of Jack's gradual blossoming, his first step toward feeling comfortable in the world and in his own skin. A shy, pudgy, uncertain fellow, who typically mashes down his matted blond almost-locs with a nondescript knit cap, Jack suddenly becomes alive to certain possibilities -- for one thing, he may actually be on his way to having sex.
Jack Goes Boating was originally an off-Broadway play, and the playwright, Robert Glaudini, has adapted the script himself. Perhaps that's part of the reason the picture feels more playlike than cinematic: This is a work in which every line has been measured and weighted carefully, in which characters will undergo Big Transformations and have Sudden Realizations, all of them coming together with a nice, loud click in the third act. Hoffman (formerly the artistic codirector, with Ortiz, of New York's LABryinth Theater Company) has clearly thought about every moment, every shot, carefully -- perhaps too carefully.
That's not to say he doesn't stage some things quite nicely: A scene in which Jack goes to visit Connie in the hospital (she's been mysteriously attacked on the subway), shortly after meeting her for the first time, is delicately framed and articulated. Unsure of what to bring her, he's toting along a stuffed koala bear. When he arrives at the hospital waiting room, Clyde and Lucy have an argument -- the first sign that even though they truly want Jack to have love in his life, their own marriage is coming apart at the seams -- and Jack's childlike discomfort speaks volumes about his own idealistic yet fearful expectations about love.
Hoffman, a versatile and tactile actor, gives a charming, shuffling performance here, albeit one with a bit of an edge: You always get the sense that Jack is capable of really blowing his stack, and sure enough, in that all-important third act, he does. Ryan matches him nicely: She's fidgety and brittle at first, but as she gets used to Jack, and becomes accustomed to the possibility of love, she begins to radiate a slow-burning warmth. Her character is likable without being desperate to be liked.
But as a director, Hoffman appears to have saddled Jack Goes Boating with more weight than it can comfortably bear. The material is sensitive and a little biting, but it's not particularly deep. Even so, Hoffman appears to have worked overtime to polish every scene to a jewel-like gloss, and he's lost some spontaneity and freshness in the process. The picture is well-crafted; it just doesn't breathe.
There are also some tantalizing but unanswered questions about Connie's character, who's constantly claiming that men -- on the subway, at work, just about everywhere -- are victimizing her with inappropriate sexual attention. How much of it is real and how much is in her imagination? The movie fudges the issue, as if it doesn't matter, and maybe it doesn't. Still, you'd hate to see a character like Jack get saddled with a delusional nutcase.
And the movie's conclusion -- that all people in romantic partnerships can expect to have trouble; they just won't all have the same kind of trouble -- feels wispy, despite the fact that it's a completely reasonable idea. Jack Goes Boating is a lightweight picture that operates on the illusion that it has more ballast than it does. It ought to shimmer more; instead, it keeps getting caught in the glare of its not-so-profound ideas.