Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut seems a little late in the coming. After all, a man with three Oscar nominations and a long history of stellar performances should hold a pretty firm grasp on the human condition. So while “Jack Goes Boating” — an allegory of two innocent people holding onto each other while the rest of New York silently crumbles around them — feels a bit anticlimactic on first reflection, maybe it’s just overdue to the point of being stale.

“Jack Goes Boating”

At the State
Overture Films

Really, everything about “Jack” is a little wound down. Adapted from a play by Robert Glaudini, the film tells the story of Jack, a simple-minded limo driver who just wants to find a serious relationship. As the protagonist, Hoffman, who’s hell-bent on making himself look as repulsive as possible, resembles nothing so much as a large, fleshy baby. When his married friends Clyde (John Ortiz, “Public Enemies”) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega, “Flawless”) set him up with the slightly odd, sexually paranoid Connie (Amy Ryan, “Gone Baby Gone”), Jack’s newborn demeanor cracks a little to show his general inexperience.

If Jack were a girl, he’d probably get a makeover and go shopping. Instead, he just learns how to swim and cook a meal. And slowly, as Jack’s limited awareness of the world increases in scope, he realizes that with his limo driver job and three friends, he might not have it so bad after all.

At its worst, “Jack Goes Boating” can be excruciatingly dull. At best, it’s relaxing. As a film with very little ambition in regards to story content, “Jack” needs to rely on characterization in order to pull a viewer through. And though the four actors do an admirable job of inhabiting their respective characters, there isn’t enough fat in the screenplay to cushion what essentially is a straightforward parable about surviving in New York City.

To Hoffman’s credit, though, the film never feels much like a play — there is nary a strand of turgid, exhaustive dialogue so typical in stage-based adaptations. In fact, it might be that its screenplay is too linear and clear-cut in its plot progression that brings about its unfortunate downfall.

However, the film does seem to hit its stride somewhere in the middle third. Jack and Connie, slightly off-kilter from the rest of the world, do a lot of hugging and kissing to make up for the melancholic devastation leaking out of their friends. But the best scenes happen in the swimming pool, as Clyde patiently teaches Jack how to hold his breath by visualizing the little chlorine bubbles gurgling around him. Later on, images of Jack lucidly slicing through the water are intercut with a center shot of him standing on a bridge practicing his strokes while Fleet Foxes blasts in the background.

With his debut, Hoffman has proven his prowess behind the camera, though his story development still needs a little fine-tuning. But it’s the little moments in between that make the short, imperfect “Jack Goes Boating” a worthwhile watch, which really speaks to the overlying themes of the film. As Clyde would say, “Life is fucked up, but we get by.”

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