No doubt about it. Whether he's mincing in Capote or blustering in Charlie Wilson's War, Philip Seymour Hoffman ranks among the best screen actors of his generation. And now, like many a serious thespian before him, he's taken that next step. For the first time here, Hoffman works both sides of the camera, making his debut as a feature director even while starring in the title role. Alas, no doubt about this too: Our expectations may be buoyant but the result isn't. Jack Goes Boating barely stays afloat - it's a deep disappointment.
Part of the problem can be traced to the source material. Centred on the loves lost and found by four semi-functional New Yorkers, the film is adapted from a play, but there ain't much adapting going on. Instead, the thing creaks with staginess, a tendency surely exacerbated by the fact that most of the involved principals - from playwright Bob Glaudini to the cast - also toiled in the off-Broadway production. In this case, their excessive familiarity breeds our near-contempt.
Okay, maybe not contempt; that's glib. But there's just something about this sort of independent picture, steeped in Artsy Sensitivity, that incites an ingrained resistance in a movie audience - it's so earnestly anti-Hollywood that it gives Hollywood a good name. Consider our first peek at the rumpled Jack, rising from bed and given by Hoffman a whipped-dog look that screams, "Pity me, love me." And so, perversely, we don't.
Not that the guy is dislikeable. Quite the opposite. Definitely quiet, maybe shy, he's a limo driver nervous in manner and polite to a fault. His sole passion is reggae music and, beneath his wool tuque, sad evidence of that passion can be seen in his wispy attempts to grow dreadlocks. Needless to say, Jack is single. However, his good buddy Clyde (John Ortiz) is keen to change that status. Clyde and his wife introduce him to Connie (Amy Ryan), another lonely soul. Their meeting is awkward, tentative, but does generate a pale spark of romance - not much but enough, apparently, to warm up the rest of the plot.
From there, through a New York winter, the story evolves into a tale of three relationships: the new couple, the married couple and the odd couple (the male bond between Jack and Clyde). En route, love is discovered, love is betrayed, love is confessed, leaving us to compare and contrast the different phases of amour's moons. Yes, it's that type of script, the kind that plays like an undergrad essay with the themes highlighted in yellow marker.
The same flaw infects the performances. Everyone has some fine individual moments, but the acting collectively is more conspicuous than good, as if the cast can't quite brush the upper-case theatricality out of their work. The exception is Ryan, and it may be no coincidence that she's the only one here who didn't appear in the stage play.
Meanwhile, behind the camera, Hoffman is making the rookie mistakes of most actors-turned-director - specifically, an over-reliance on medium shots with a fixed lens, sticking his actors in a static frame and generously allowing them to emote. Of course, that too looks stagey. Worse, it merely calls attention to his occasional attempts to change that look. So the shots designed to "open up" the piece seem contrived and inorganic - like tracking Clyde to a posh hotel lobby and going all slow-motion on us, or following Jack to a swimming pool and dunking us underwater. These transitions are so abrupt they should come with an advisory: "We interrupt this play for a short bout of cinema."
In the end, after the inevitably explosive climax gives way to the always bittersweet conclusion (a two-pronged staple of Artsy Sensitivity), a figurative curtain falls. You half expect bows to be taken and applause to be heard - just a smattering, so as not to seem insensitive.
Jack Goes Boating
- Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman
- Written by Bob Glaudini
- Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan
- Classification: 14A