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'Jack': Bursting at the Themes

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 09, 1996

Francis Ford Coppola is a filmmaker of prodigious talents. He directed the "Godfather" trilogy, "Apocalypse Now" and "Bram Stoker's Dracula," to name just a few of his productions. But when a master dedicates his genius to the production of schmaltz, it's not a pretty sight.

Written by James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau, "Jack" stars Robin Williams as a 10-year-old boy trapped in the body of a 40-year-old man. No, little Jack didn't ask a magical fortune-telling machine to make him BIG -- as the Tom Hanks character did in the starmaking 1988 classic. Because of a genetic anomaly, Jack's cells grow at four times the normal rate. As a result, his mother (Diane Lane) feels the prenatal Jack knocking at life's door after only two months. Understandably, this early delivery catches Mom and Dad (Brian Kerwin) off-guard. When the crucial moment comes they are dancing in a conga line at a costume party dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West and the Tin Man.

The party costumes aren't just colorful window dressing -- they're early signs from Coppola that we're not in Kansas anymore. Unfortunately, we're not in Oz, either. We're in the shameless mid-'90s, where Hollywood pawns off recycled ideas as wholesome affirmations of life.

The basic idea here is that human existence should be relished, explored, embraced to the fullest -- after all, we're only here for the briefest of moments.

But it's also about the need to keep the inner child alive. Life must be approached with the alert curiosity of youth, not the jaded disappointment of adulthood. In the land of waking dreams where Coppola operates, Jack is a sort of Dracula in reverse. Both characters are freaks, fairy tale monsters. And both stories are about mortality. But instead of living forever like a vampire, Jack is scheduled for a shorter-than-usual run in this world. From the window in his bedroom turret, he watches as the clouds race across the sky at Mach speed, while inside the hands of his biological clock spin like pinwheels.

As it's explained by his tutor (a mellow Bill Cosby), Jack is like a shooting star. Ever see a shooting star, he asks. It blazes across the sky, lighting up the night. But I just want to be a normal star, Jack says mournfully. To which the boy's sage mentor replies, "You can never be normal, Jack. You are . . . spectacular."

Not that this little parable does Jack much good. But Cosby pitches it so expertly that most of the audience will probably buy it -- and the movie's go-for-the-gusto message. What's odd, though, is that "Jack" is anything but upbeat. In places, it's downright painful.

Until the age of 10, Jack has been kept out of the public schools by his parents. And when this legendary neighborhood mystery boy arrives for his first day, the other kids are understandably confused. Thankfully, Coppola doesn't sanitize his young characters and turn them into model children. When Jack first steps onto the playground, his classmates taunt him mercilessly, pointing at his hairy knuckles and poking him with sticks. And your heart can't help but crack when he curls up inside a pipe to eat his snack during the next recess.

Yet Williams never looks comfortable in the part. In "Big," the face of the inner child was always visible in Hanks's face. But Williams doesn't possess that sort of natural innocence or transparency. "Jack" is at its best when Williams is allowed to be the Big Kid he is and its hero is allowed to climb up into the treehouse that serves as his gang's headquarters and engage in the normal play of a normal boy.

In such moments, Williams is convincing -- even with the five o'clock shadow. Both he and the always-silky-smooth Cosby are superb in their on-screen moments together. The show, however, belongs to Williams, and he's unable to convey the depths of Jack's depression after he does the math and begins to realize the seriousness of his condition.

At this point, adults in the audience will probably have a far better understanding of Jack's panic over his impending death than their baffled little ones.

A lot of middle-aged male directors come to realize their own mortality and make a movie about it. But Coppola got tangled up in his own thoughts about life and death. As a result, the movie's bittersweet ending at Jack's graduation is more bitter -- and mawkish -- than sweet.

"Make hay while the sun shines," Coppola seems to be saying. "For tomorrow ye will be in your grave." Feel better now?

Jack is rated PG-13.

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