Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***
Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of our great living actors, and has proven himself over the years in a number of supporting roles, ranging from sweaty and snarky to snaky and charming, to both funny and heartbreaking. Even his lead roles, such as Capote and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, have managed to use his skills well. He's always pushing and allowing himself to be pushed, looking for fresh angles and daring ideas. Unfortunately, Hoffman does not bring much of this energy to his directorial debut, Jack Goes Boating, which is based upon a 2007 play by Bob Glaudini, but it's worth a watch.
Hoffman stars and recreates his stage role, and perhaps not surprisingly, the result is more character-based than it is flashy or visually astute. It would almost come across as a fairly routine Indie/Sundance-type movie, were it not for the superior acting and subtle characterization.
Jack (Hoffman) works for his uncle as a limo driver, along with his best friend Clyde (John Ortiz). Jack is a sad, quiet, shy type, who wears stringy blond dreadlocks, listens to reggae music and is not especially social. During a chilly, snowy New York winter, Clyde's wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega, who also appeared with Hoffman in Flawless) sets him up on a blind date with one of Lucy's co-workers, Connie (the always terrific Amy Ryan). Jack and Connie hit it off, setting a date for the next summer to go boating in the park. (And no, sadly, the movie has nothing to do with Jacques Rivette's 1974 masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating.)
Jack can't swim, so he arranges for lessons with Clyde. He also learns to cook so that he can invite Connie to a dinner party. Unfortunately, everything goes wrong at the party, and it becomes clear that Clyde and Lucy's marriage is disintegrating faster than Jack and Lucy's relationship is progressing.
A surface reading shows a good number of "quirky" touches, such as Jack's penchant for reggae music and his quasi-dreadlocked hair, to the montage of "learning" sequences, to some of the staging and soundtrack choices. Viewers will notice its similarity to other recent indie romances like The Visitor and also Last Chance Harvey, in which a middle-aged sad-sack finds a way to improve his life so that he can deserve the love of a good woman.
But Hoffman clearly has his heart in this material and gives it an intimate, emotionally rich atmosphere, with the four leads playing off of one another with great skill and comfort. The characters' relationships are a good deal deeper and more complex than they might appear; the movie is strong enough for a second reading.
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