In his first film as a director, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman stays with what he knows. "Jack Goes Boating" is a play he has already performed (with his longtime theater company LAByrinth). It is cast with actors close to him, like his LAByrinth partner John Ortiz. And, it must be noted, it offers Hoffman a role not unlike many of the sad-sack, awkward characters he has become justly famous for playing.
That familiarity pays off here, especially in the intimacy between Hoffman and Ortiz, who play working-class men whose unlikely but deep friendship sustains the film through potentially challenging moments. They're Jack and Clyde, who share a job (they drive limos for wealthy Manhattan clients) but have little else in common. Clyde is married, good-looking and exudes competence. Jack is overweight (doughier even than Hoffman usually is onscreen), underconfident and cursed with an especially ugly set of white-guy dreadlocks. Those half-hearted dreads, though, spring from Jack's love of reggae music - the only visible proof of the soulfulness within this odd, unexpressive man.
Believing in Jack's capacity for love, Clyde and his wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), set him up with Connie (Amy Ryan), who's nice-looking but shares Jack's social awkwardness.
In a dinner scene that typifies the film's quirkiness, Jack barely keeps his head above water, holding up his end of the conversation by just repeating everything Connie says and shaking his head in wonder.
Still, Connie seems open to a future romance, and the movie's title refers to one of the two self-improvement projects Jack embarks on in order to woo her. He starts swimming lessons with Clyde so he'll be able to take Connie boating in Central Park when springtime comes. He also studies with a chef Clyde knows, planning a meal he can cook for her.
Both projects are long-term, and they give Hoffman a way of expressing the commitment Jack has to pleasing Connie. Repeatedly, we see into Jack's head as he visualizes himself moving through the water or chopping ingredients - rehearsing the ways in which he will rise to the occasion instead of falling apart.
The story does give Jack a perfect opportunity to fall apart. Difficulties in Clyde's marriage - which serves as Jack's model for adult relationships - temper the sweetness of Jack's attraction to Connie. Those tensions build to a long final sequence that is as precarious for the film as it is for the characters - a lurching, could-go-either-way moment mixing fellowship with menace, buoyancy with dread.
Critics who dismiss "Boating" as just another chance to see Hoffman play a wounded schlub are being unfair. But there is something missing in the script, which might have given us more insight into Jack's insecurities and done more to explain what Connie sees in him that others don't.
Those small failings, though, don't negate the occasional moments of transcendence in a movie whose modesty is a match for its hero's gentle, generous spirit.
'Jack Goes Boating'
Our grade: B+
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Running Time: 90 min
MPAA rating: R (Adult Language, Adult Situations)
Release Date: Sep 24, 2010
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