Philip Seymour Hoffman has proven himself to be a serious artist with a serious inclination towards seriously depressive material. From Love Liza to Capote to Synecdoche, New York he’s worked hard to establish himself as the leading name in all things irresistibly dreary. Not that there’s anything wrong with that only that those films worked better as reasons to become addicted to Prozac than as quality entertainment. Now, luckily, Hoffman steps behind the camera to direct (while remaining in front of it as the lead) an adaptation of Bob Glaudini’s 2007 play Jack Goes Boating which Hoffman starred in Off Broadway, and in doing so produces his best work yet in that subgenre. It’s a slow meandering tale of an obese, awkward man who is going through profound life changes (professionally, relationally) and is therefore forced into a series of sink or swim situations.
Jack (Hoffman) fills his life with a friendship with an explosive and troubled couple (played by John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega) and a blossoming love affair with the beautiful yet wounded Connie (Amy Ryan, spectacular as always). Most of the script is made up of them in quiet settings feeling each other out. Jack is always desperate to say the right thing but he aims to please so intensely that it works to his detriment. It’s all building up towards a natural climax wherein Jack will cook Connie dinner, something that previously only her mother has done for her. But danger lurks around every corner because he’s never cooked a thing in his life and, well, he happens to be socially retarded. Those details work brilliantly in giving the movie depth and believability. It’s a romantic comedy with its feet planted firmly on the ground. And even though the laughs are dry and spaced too far apart they provide a familiarity and will strike a nerve with anybody who has ever tried with all their might to impress somebody who they don’t deserve.
The first half or so is a slow go. Time is spent with Connie as she struggles with her new job selling nonsense for a perv and with Jack as he goes through the motions of gaining employment with the MTA. But then the dinner scene arrives and brings everything that came before into focus. It provides a backbone, albeit one made of slapstick humor and cringe inducing realism. Hoffman’s directing plays it safe for the most part but once the climax arrives he digs into his bag of tricks which allows him to punch the audience harder that they were expecting. He massages the scene just right, helping it turn from silly into scary into joyful and finally into remorseful without it ever feeling false. He foreshadows the pain that he is about to inflict on us but then when it hits it still feels like a shock. Everything falls apart all too perfectly but I didn’t mind because I’ve actually seen this scene in my real life. Without all the exposition the finale wouldn’t have worked but it’s a shame that the whole 89 minutes couldn’t have been that engrossing shitstorm of a meal.
Still, no matter how gripping or relevant Jack Goes Boating is it will certainly cut too close to the bone for most of mainstream America. Most people who could have potentially enjoyed it have been weaned on network TV, an entity whose whole reason for beings seems to be to provide people a place to go where they never have to feel an ounce of discomfort. So once word gets out that Jack deals with such unfortunate topics as insecurity and mid-life courting the people will certainly rise up and make sure that it gets buried under an avalanche of superhero movies. For those daring enough to look themselves in the mirror, the real mirror not one that reflects Jason Statham, there is something special here that reminds us that a seriously messed up private life is the rule not the exception.
Director: Philip Seymour Hoffman Notable Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega Writer: Robert Glaudini (based on his play)