Jack Goes Boating

Philip Seymour Hoffman is both director and actor in Jack Goes Boating, a quirky and slow-moving film about a shy and awkward couple's budding romance in New York.

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Director: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Amy Ryan
***

Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his directorial debut in the unconventional romance Jack Goes Boating, adapted from Bob Glaudini's 2007 play of the same name. Hoffman also stars as the film's central figure Jack, a shy, overweight, 40-something limousine driver in New York. A reggae-loving, blonde dreadlocked single, Jack is Mr Below-Average and Mr Lonely rolled into one.

His best friend Clyde (John Ortiz) and Clyde's wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) set Jack up with the equally timid, socially awkward Connie (Amy Ryan). The prospect of romance and a long-term relationship sets Jack firmly on the path to self-improvement. This evolution, albeit snail-paced, happens as Jack masters cooking and learns to swim in the hope that he might one day take Connie boating in Central Park.

All four main characters deliver sensitive, believable performances and skilfully deflect attention away from the very basic script and storyline. Scenes between Jack and Connie are eye-to-the-keyhole fascinating to watch, their encounters consisting of painfully long silences, nervous smiles and stilted conversation. Hoffman's acting is formidable; however this is perhaps where he neglected his director's duties. Towards the middle of the film, the viewer starts to yearn for a better understanding of the characters: their background, childhood and family, indeed, any kind of context or clue that could provide an explanation for their gauche behaviour.

On the flip side, Hoffman's greatest success as a director was allowing this film to breathe. Cameras are indulgently left rolling at the end of many scenes, letting viewers draw their own conclusions about the motivations of the characters as they stare pensively into space or just go quietly about their daily business. The film moves at the same speed as Jack's listless life and the absence of jump-cuts, choppy scene changes and quick-fire dialogue makes watching this film a blissfully calm experience.

Another technique favoured by Hoffman is to make his characters manifest their dreams by "visualisation". One of the most beautifully crafted scenes in the film involves Jack preparing a meal for Connie in his mind's eye. With the grace of a ballet dancer he moves around his kitchen miming the slicing, whisking and baking of the carefully choreographed meal over and over again.

The parallel storylines work well, too, with Jack stumbling hesitantly into his new relationship with Connie, all the while witnessing the jealous bickering between Clyde and Lucy that threatens to end their marriage. Ortiz's performance as Lucy's husband and Jack's mentor is flawless and he keeps the viewer's attention until the credits roll, revealing layer upon layer of his well-meaning but damaged character. He's the undisputed lynchpin of this movie and brings great energy to an otherwise low-wattage film. What also transmits through the lens is the chemistry that Hoffman, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega share. This no doubt had much to do with the trio making up the original cast for the off-Broadway stage production.

It is to Hoffman's credit that the film's characters stay with you as long as they do. Though not attractive, charismatic or amusing, they do secure your compassion and almost make you hope a sequel will surface in years to come. What happens to the clumsy couple in New York? Surely if they could make it there, they could make it anywhere, right? Overcoming all the odds and flying in the face of adversity is, after all, what this film is all about. Whether Hoffman successfully overcame the challenges posed by directing and acting in Jack Goes Boating, is not entirely clear. Not bad for a first attempt, I'd say, and if you're in the market for a quirky romantic drama, it might just float your boat.