' ' Cinema Romantico: Jack Goes Boating

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jack Goes Boating

This is the sort of movie Woody Allen would (should?) be making if he was not still stuck in the seventies. Centered exclusively around two relationships - one brand new, one long simmering - "Jack Goes Boating" is a film about love and about people talking about love and all the frailty and cruelty and the messiness - my God, the messiness - that goes into both establishing and maintaining a relationship.

The film stars the magnificent Philip Seymour Hoffman as the title character but it also doubles as Hoffman's directorial debut, his source material being an off-Broadway play authored by Bob Glaudini who also penned this cinematic adaptation, and rather than repeatedly framing himself in flattering light Hoffman is willing to turn up on camera with a few additional pounds in an unbecoming swimming cap in the shallow end of a pool. Vanity Project? Eh, not so much.

An emotionally awkward, agonizingly shy limo driver who nevertheless sincerely wishes people would emote more "positive vibes", and who finds his own ceaseless source of positivity in The Melodians' "Rivers Of Babylon", his personal anthem, is, at the behest of his friend and fellow employee Clyde (John Ortiz), forced into a Meet Cute with the equally emotionally awkward, agonizingly shy Connie (Amy Ryan, finally getting a leading role worthy of her talent), a new employee at the same funeral home where Clyde's wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) works.

Except it's not quite a Meet Cute. Let's call it a Meet. A Meet wherein Ryan as Connie is allowed to deliver a monologue at the level of Diane Keaton's famed "free turkey" soliloquy in "Annie Hall." Tentatively, Jack asks her out. "We made a date for summer," Jack tells Clyde. "You made a date for summer in winter?" asks Clyde. Yes. A date to go boating. One problem: Jack can't swim. And later, after a particularly traumatic event, Jack makes a date to cook dinner for Connie. Another problem: Jack can't cook. So Clyde teaches him to swim and an old friend - perhaps more - of Lucy's teaches him to cook.

This is what passes for plot twists. This is a film about people interacting and talking and feeling their way forward, mostly feeling their way forward by stumbling and bumbling. Extravagant gestures are not in the cards for Jack and Connie for these are people of reluctant shrugs. Like the aforementioned Woody Allen who, as the esteemed Roger Ebert has noted, has made a career out of making "secondary characters heoric", Jack and Connie often feel like the secondary couple of a commonplace, mainstream motion picture that would have featured the volatile Clyde and Lucy as its centerpiece. Which is not to suggest that Clyde and Lucy get the shaft while the film showcases the stars because it does not, it devotes plenty of time to both couples, each one assisting to underscore the idea of the other, the exploration of the ancient common sense that long term relationships never ever develop the way we quite expect.

All this could, of course, weigh the audience down and so Hoffman the director chooses not to focus on the cold, hard realities of a New York Winter and instead goes for the snow-globe effect, the light-hearted cinematic flurries that contrasts all the hesitant realism and in the learning-to-swim scenes which he just lets speak for themselves and lift you up without yanking you up by your collar.

Behind the camera Hoffman really only has problems during the extended third-act showdown between our quartet at Clyde and Lucy's apartment when the film's stage origins begin to finally rear their head and Jack's fabulous meal isn't just a meal and subtext and symbolism threatens to start flying along with all the verbal insults and you can feel it all starting to careen except then Jack, embarrassed, angry, locks himself in the bathroom and suddenly the others are singing to him to prod him back out and it's strange and it's hectic and it's absolutely wonderful and it crystallizes the picture and life itself. "How can we sing a song of joy in a strange land?" This movie knows. Yes, it does. You gotta fight for your right to be idealistic.


Danny King said...

I really want to try and make some time to see this one because I'm a big Hoffman fan and I think he could be a really promising talent behind the camera.

Nick Prigge said...

I thought he showed a lot of promise. I mean the concept of the movie isn't real cinematic but for the most part he successfully makes it cinematic. It's definitely worth a ticket.