Jack Goes Boating Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman; written by Robert Glaudini, based on his play; with Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz, Amy Ryan, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Thomas McCarthy
It took five years for “Jack Goes Boating,” the only movie directed by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, to reach movie theaters in Israel. Had I seen the film when it was first released in 2010 rather than now, more than a year after Hoffman’s death, I’m sure I would have reacted to it differently. I would probably have said then that while not suggesting a very distinctive touch, the movie was interesting mainly for the way in which Hoffman the director presents Hoffman the actor – a promising quality that, I might have written, would be interesting to follow in later films.
That cannot happen now, of course, since Hoffman passed away last year at the age of 46. It might not have happened in any case, because although “Jack Goes Boating” was fairly well received by American critics, Hoffman did not follow it up with another picture; directing must not have been a pressing priority for him.
And so we are left with a singular event in the career of this fine actor, whose absence is once again sorely felt as we watch him perform in his only project as director. If this was indeed a new professional beginning for Hoffman, it was a modest one, situated in an area that Hoffman knew well from his acting work and thus comfortable for him. The screenplay is by playwright Robert Glaudini based on his own play, which was produced off-Broadway by the Labyrinth Theater Company and starred Hoffman, John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega, all of whom appear in the movie in their stage roles.
“Jack Goes Boating” is a low-key, realist human drama about loneliness and the desperate search for love, themes that the movie sets in a working-class environment. It brings to mind (and not in a bad way) the plays and screenplays that Paddy Chayefsky wrote in the 1950s – especially “Marty,” Delbert Mann’s movie about a lonely butcher and a lonely schoolteacher, the only American film ever to win both an Oscar and a Palme d’Or. Hoffman plays Jack, who drives a limousine for his uncle’s company and has no life outside of his job. His only friend is Clyde (Ortiz), another driver, who is married to Lucy (Rubin-Vega). Lucy works at a funeral home with the pathologically shy Connie (Amy Ryan), and she and Clyde decide that no matter what, they must find a way to turn these two lonely people into a couple.
Much of the movie, which has elements of a romantic comedy, follows Clyde’s energetic efforts to bring Jack out of his shell and turn him into the man of Connie’s romantic dreams. Since Connie wants to go out on the lake, Jack must learn to swim and row a boat; and because Connie dreams of someday having a man cook her dinner, Jack has to learn how to cook. Glaudini and Hoffman manage to convey the embarrassment involved in Jack’s sudden role as the romantic project of his only two friends, as well as the embarrassment involved in the early states of any romantic connection. Connie and Jack’s bond may be doomed already; both seem like they may have been knocked around too much by life to give love a real chance.
Hoffman tells the story in an intimate manner, often looking closely at his characters’ faces. But he also does not ignore the New York landscape, which is portrayed in a prosaic, unromantic way. Happily, the movie does not focus only on Jack and Connie; gradually we realize that Clyde and Lucy’s self-imposed task is a way of disguising the trouble in their own marriage. Weaving the two stories together adds depth to “Jack Goes Boating,” which tells us that the so-called romantic “happy ending” is not always that happy, and that human existence is more complicated than any romantic formula promising to solve it.
“Jack Goes Boating” features good dialogue and many precise, believable scenes. But it would have been no more than a minor romantic drama were it not for the talent of the four leads. Once again we get to see just how dependent movies are on their cast. John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega are excellent. Amy Ryan, whom we most recently saw in “Birdman,” gives another demonstration of her great range as an actress. And Hoffman? Well, he’s Hoffman.
Hoffman’s acting career included many awkward characters (as well as aggressive and menacing ones). In his single movie as director, he allows embarrassment to give his performance an exposed, bold directness. He is touching without becoming saccharine or sentimental, and the poignancy of his appearance is naturally intensified by the fact that this is another moment of saying goodbye to such a talented actor.
Even if that were not the case, however, “Jack Goes Boating” is an impressive display of Hoffman’s work. As an actor, and here as a director as well, Hoffman always recognized the power of restraint to create a memorable impression – albeit, in this case, not one that leaves behind an indelible trace.