"Jack Goes Boating", above all, is indistinct. My memory of the film isn’t yet a week old, and already the transience of its impact has set in. If the script, based with painful obviousness on a stagnant stage play, was really the material that made Oscar winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman want to throw his director’s beret into the ring, surely I must be missing something.
"Jack Goes Boating" doesn’t have an ounce of creativity, which is a shame because Hoffman honestly shows promise as a director, and the performances of his entire cast are superb. The unfortunate inevitability in following bum blueprints is that the whole thing collapses.
The mediocrity that practically oozes from its pores is enough to gag a man on scent alone. The undue theatricality of the writing is heightened by a fact that becomes obvious painfully early: you know exactly how it’s all going to turn out. Worse yet, you’re stuck watching the world’s two least articulate people fumble their way around their love for one another. Though to be clear, the film is by no means bad cinema. Hoffman, who plays the title role in addition to directing, has a great, subtle chemistry with his co-star Amy Ryan; a chemistry that’s completely wasted on a story as sharp as safety-scissors.
The plot, insofar as one exists, revolves around two modern couples living in New York City. The first (John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega) are married and appear to have it great. They introduce the second, their two awkward (or is it only?) friends, on a blind date. Hoffman and Ryan’s characters share a dinner during which neither appears to be having a good time, though both are apparently lonely enough to consider it a mild success.
And so the film tediously prattles on, drawing a heavy-handed comparison between the crumbling marriage and the fledgling courtship. Interspersed with these scenes are subplots where Jack learns to swim and cook, and Ryan’s character, Connie, deals with sexual harassment in the workplace. The entire film dovetails into an expectedly tumultuous climax, where everything can and does go wrong for our two couples before crescendoing into fifteen minutes of self-aware shouting that highlights its source material so transparently that you can practically see the stage.
Thankfully, the performances are opaque. Hoffman isn’t exactly challenging himself; he’s played broken, socially inept sweethearts on more than one occasion before, but it’s a character archetype he excels in. Ryan is as delicate and sympathetic as his companion, and we really do want things to work out well for them (even though that seems to be a foregone conclusion). Meanwhile, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega’s portrayals of Jack’s bourgeois acquaintances work on a performance level. Both feel authentic, but are ultimately sabotaged by their storyteller, who appears to have less understanding of them than they do.
"Jack Goes Boating" is another testament to the power of the screenwriter, in this case, to spoil everything great a film has going for it. For my money, Hoffman is one of the greatest actors working today, and he asserts himself here as a confident purveyor of images. The problem is, he chose weak material.
Though I hope he directs again, I question Hoffman’s taste as a storyteller. Perhaps he was just sharpening his creative knives for something juicier, but the memorable moments in "Jack Goes Boating" were few enough to have already been jettisoned from my consciousness.
Its impact may have dissipated, but first impressions last a lifetime. Here’s to hoping Hoffman’s next effort lives up to his talent.