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In his directorial debut, Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars as a lonely, middle-aged limo driver whose life changes in small but profound ways upon falling in love. Though “Jack Goes Boating,” an adaptation of the 2007 stage play of the same name, was written by the author of the original play, the film fails to make a successful translation. The quality of Hoffman’s acting and infrequent scenes of dark humor provide rare moments of cinematic skill, but as a whole, the film’s poor pacing, forced dialogue, and lack of emotional identification with the characters ensure that “Jack Goes Boating” just can’t stay afloat.
The film’s plot focuses on the private joys and frustrations of two working-class New York City couples. Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega, of “Rent” fame) are married, but suffering from deep-seated issues of romantic infidelity. As a favor to his sweet but lonely best friend Jack (Hoffman), Clyde arranges a blind date with one of his wife’s female co-workers, Connie (Amy Ryan).
Like the blind date it depicts in one of the earliest scenes, the film opens with an awkward, slow start. Sparse dialogue, uncomfortable pauses, and nervous laughter drag down the first half-hour, which only becomes more fluid, strangely, after a dramatic scene of unexpected violence. Indeed, the film’s greatest flaw is in its pacing; scenes of quiet understatement too often end abruptly or even disturbingly. In one such scene, Lucy is shown calmly leaving for work, chatting with her husband in an extended, slowly-developing dialogue, only to arrive at her office to find a completely brutalized and bloodied Connie sitting at her desk, trying to make an over-the-phone sale despite her horrific wounds.
In another such instance of almost-boredom rapidly shifting to violence, a dinner party scene depicts the two couples indulging in some hookah before their meal, and a leisurely, blurred montage traces their collective slip into drug-induced relaxation. But when the fire alarm goes off, the otherwise mellow Jack explodes into a violent rage, smashing glass and screaming with fury. Instead of being artful or moving, these dramatic, jarring shifts in tone simply feel unnecessary and disruptive.
His over-the-top outburst notwithstanding, Hoffman’s performance as Jack is easily the highlight of the film. Quiet but kind, Jack’s personal warmth is evident in his easygoing manner, willingness to please Connie, and his loyalty to Clyde. His upbeat nature is even evident in his choice of music, as he is rarely seen without his reggae-blasting headphones, carefully fitted over his pseudo-dreadlocks.
The film also benefits from a few moments of humor, though they are dark and infrequent. In one scene, Connie tells the inspiring, uplifting story of her elderly father’s resilient emergence from a two-month coma, and his avowal to live and care for her aging mother. After pausing a moment to smilingly acknowledge the well-wishes of her friends, she matter-of-factly announces, “But as he was leaving the hospital, he fell and hit his head and died anyway.” Moments like these provide a brief sense of levity in an otherwise unhappy film.
And unhappy it is; throughout the film, certain weighty topics are introduced, but then are consistently curtailed or left undeveloped. For instance, one theme that receives frequent attention throughout the film is Connie’s tendency to suffer unwanted sexual advances, be it her boss’s borderline-inappropriate hand placement, or the violent aggression of a sexual predator on the subway. In the very opening scene, she even claims that a hospital employee tried to hit on her while she was visiting her father. While allusions are made to some history of sexual abuse, this oft-mentioned element of the film fails to contribute to its overall development, as it doesn’t provide the arc of personal growth for Connie that it could.
From the start, the film establishes that each character has his or her own small, long-term goals. Through Connie’s offhand comments about wanting to go boating and attend a dinner party, Jack decides to learn new skills, like cooking and swimming. Connie, in turn, hopes to improve at her job as a saleswoman for grief-counseling courses by closing more deals. Even the happy-go-lucky, frequently-stoned Clyde takes night classes at a community college to finish his degree. Yet each character’s private mission fails to prove inspiring or even interesting to watch, for the actors fail to create truly engaging performances on an emotional level, and each thread remains unintegrated.
Above all, the film is modest in its scope. It doesn’t attempt to make any sweeping commentary about the difficulties of modern romance; instead, it simply presents a no-frills, character-driven drama whose tensions are intended to lie in the smallest of moments. Unfortunately, however, “Jack Goes Boating,” can’t capture these subtle nuances of feeling. Although the actors supply a high degree of intensity at times, this frenzied and frequently disjointed display of passion fails to connect with the viewer.
—Staff writer Clio C. Smurro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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