Hoffman wades patiently into directorial pool
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 24, 2010
Talk about anticipation. There's so much delayed gratification in "jack goes boating" that the movie could more accurately be described as "Jack Takes Swimming Lessons in Preparation for the Remote Possibility That He May One Day Actually Get in a Boat."
There are, however, less nautical rewards to be had in this quiet and patient love story, the directorial debut of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. For those who aren't rushed, there's a nice little payoff -- if not a happy ending, per se, at least the promise of a happy beginning.
Hoffman plays Jack, a painfully shy and somewhat inarticulate New York limousine driver who gets fixed up with mousy telemarketer Connie (Amy Ryan) by mutual friends Clyde and Lucy (John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega). With his soft, fat features and paunchy physique, Hoffman resembles nothing so much as a giant baby. It isn't helped by the fact that he spends 95 percent of the film swaddled in a knit cap and winter coat or clad in a diaper-like swimsuit and rubber bathing cap.
That impression isn't far from the truth. Though a grown man, Jack is still infantile. He lives in his uncle's basement. He can't cook; he can't swim. He can't, from the look of things, even comb his own hair. In the handful of scenes when his head is uncovered, his long, scraggly hairdo resembles something between dreadlocks and a rat's nest.
Plus, in all likelihood he's a virgin. "I'm no expert," he tells Connie, in an understated assessment of his sexual prowess, one night when they're together. Connie is making him wait before becoming intimate while she recovers psychologically from a sexual assault suffered near the beginning of the film.
And waiting is totally cool with Jack. That gives him time to take swimming and cooking lessons. His new girlfriend, you see, has proposed they go boating some day, when it's warmer (it's the middle of winter when the film starts), and Jack would like to prepare a nice meal for Connie, who has never had anyone do that for her.
Learning to swim for someone you like? That's a sweet gesture. But it also gives Hoffman the director the opportunity to ply one of the film's central visual metaphors. Look for lots of allusions to taking the plunge, going deeper, holding one's breath.
We get it. At times the film can feel overly literary, stuffy, even stagy (no surprise, seeing as it was a play by Robert Glaudini, who adapted it for the screen). That's true, even in the climactic scene in which Jack's dinner plans -- a get-together with Connie at Clyde and Lucy's apartment -- go horribly, disastrously wrong, complete with burned food, broken crockery and ugly recriminations by Clyde over an old affair of Lucy's. It's like a scene from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
As the title character, Hoffman makes the strongest impression, though Jack's tics -- a nervous throat clearing, for instance -- can be distracting. We want to see the person, not the acting. Jack's mannerisms sometimes make him seem almost developmentally disabled. Ryan, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega, on the other hand, are more nuanced, and therefore more real.
All in all, "Jack Goes Boating" is an auspicious -- if slightly ostentatious -- debut by Hoffman, one of today's greatest actors. Maybe next time his performance in front of his camera will be as subtle as his performance behind it.
Contains drug use, obscenity, brief fighting, a post-assault bloody nose, sensuality and sexual themes.