Jack stays afloat for love

Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars in his directorial debut Jack Goes Boating, a love story focusing around two working class couples in New York

Jack warms hearts as an everyday Joe who must overcome his fears to fall in love.
Jack warms hearts as an everyday Joe who must overcome his fears to fall in love.
Credit: 
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Movie: Jack Goes Boating
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan
Director: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Writer: Robert Glaudini
Duration: 89 minutes

2.5 Stars out of 4

Jack Goes Boating is funny, awkward, immensely sentimental and simple. Seems like a difficult mincing, doesn't it? It is. But that does not make it necessarily bad, just worn out around the edges.

Brought from stage to screen by writer Robert Glaudini, has that cutesy minimalism that asks little of its direction and makes it, like theatre, more about the acting.

But the director is still prominent. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his directorial debut, is keen on maintaining himself (he plays, you guessed it, Jack) in tight closeup and being the object of affection.

Hoffman tethers Jack Goes Boating in apathy at first: Jack and Connie (played by the wonderful Amy Ryan) have a blind date, arranged by their friends Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who are married. During the date, Connie tells a story that begins with relief and ends in utter despair: Her father wakes up from a coma - relief; he hits his head on the ground and dies - despair.

Yet the scene makes us laugh. Not as dark comedy, but almost in a superiority effect--it's funny because these characters seem to be living in a more outlandish universe than ours. That's the apathy. I'm not sure that is Hoffman's intention.

Much of Jack Goes Boating feels genuine: its performances, its messages and its plot. The whole idea of the film is that Connie has asked Jack if he will take her boating. The problem: Jack can't swim, but it’s winter so this date, and ultimately, the climax of the movie, is Jack's transformation. If he goes boating, he's reached his internal destination. He has changed.

Then there's parts of Jack Goes Boating that give it a synthetic texture, not worthy of genuine lost-love stories like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or perhaps Punch-Drunk Love, which nailed the dark fervency and compulsions of its characters. Each scene in Jack Goes Boating plays out for unnecessary different purposes.

At one moment, Hoffman chills the screen in silence, to emphasize the characters' alienation; other times, he drenches scenes in gentle guitar music, fragility and peace. Perhaps Hoffman is trying to give the film an erratic composition to show the characters’ capricious emotions and inability to cope with themselves and others.

But Jack Goes Boating becomes frustrating. It's a film afraid to commit to any form of sentiment to avoid one-dimensionality. But the importance of dark comedy is for the audience to know they are in one. In Jack Goes Boating, you are not exactly sure what Hoffman is putting us in.

But Hoffman and Ryan are too good. Ryan can barely stand the touch of a man; she is subtly sexually harassed by a coworker and is beaten up in a subway by a drunkard. Jack puts her at ease; when they attempt intercourse, they feel guilty for receiving pleasure. That’s a true human feeling—that’s a great scene.

When Jack goes swimming, he dives deeper, finding his comfort and symbolically, diving down to find his spirit. Love for him has no time limit but it has a purpose: if you are good for somebody, that’s all that’s required. Connie is his counterpart, both in a state of existential recollection and the pathos that he is.

It's nice watching these swimming sequences because it's one of the most simplest ways for a man to grow: overcoming his fears and inabilities.

Jack Goes Boating is not a run-out-and-see movie because it lacks sincerity. It's a pleasant film but it has problems making sense of itself. When the scenes feel uneasy, you are never sure if that is Hoffman's, as a director, intentions.

As expected, his acting is top-notch. He cuts to the core of the right subtleties that should never go unnoticed. Simultaneously, the film feels to cheat itself: it never becomes a film, as a fault of the direction that decides to commit to its comedy or its somberness or its simplicity.

What Hoffman does get right is noteworthy. After all the distress that these characters fight through, summer arrives and boating season follows. Through a brief, yet nicely distinguished montage to “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes, Jack and Connie engage in an activity they may or may not have strived for. What we discover is the point: after all the pain and agony of the winter mornings and nights, Jack really needs to go boating.

Jack Goes Boating is now playing at The Screening Room.

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