Jack Goes Boating is as unambiguous as it is endearing, more an open doorway revealing the lives of strangers who look more and more like us the longer we stick around to see their foibles and their follies. Rooted in its theatrical origins, the story centers on four people with a great deal of woes to consider – the introvert with trouble connecting with everything, a limo driver with aspirations and a tangled past, a woman with intimacy outside the home, and a young oddball who finds herself forced into an awakening by physical and emotional confrontations. These people are us, stumbling, half knowingly, through the idiosyncrasies of life until something unremarkable catches up with them. These are people desperate to change against the inevitability of remaining the same forever. Even when presented with opportunity they falter, they pause as if random encounters are inherently dangerous and therefore inconsiderable. Change is of course a choice, a decision to act and therefore requires a trajectory; the necessary mess that brings people together and pushes them apart, the fuel for a fire. Jack Goes Boating is the classic character study full of imperfection and scars and mishaps like confetti or Manhattan snow; there is no slowing this film, it begins an even paced and casual journey where everyone and no one possesses the least amount of certainty and by the end we realize along with them, change is everywhere whether you’re looking for it or not.
This is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut, second as executive producer [Capote (2005) was the first], and his work in front of the camera and behind it is as seamless as any talent who braves the thin red line between proximity to self as actor and self as director must somehow, regularly, connect the often disjointed, the frequently awkward, and then there’s everything he’s accomplishing and not accomplishing at the same time. Hoffman, a veteran theater director with a decade plus three years to his credit, is sloven and rooted here as though he’s been working on this character for a long time; even his hair seems prepared, dirty blonde and brown strands approaching the consistency of wet hay. Hoffman has a way of inviting you in and then staring at you perplexed that you don’t know what to say or where to sit down. After a moment you feel compelled to do something and by then you’re wondering what’s going to happen next. Hoffman is that rare talent who defies his charm with offbeat, damaged, and frequently emotionally stalled characters that could be that guy sitting across the subway car or in line for a morning newspaper spending too much time picking at the corners of a newspaper with thick cloves. In Jack Goes Boating you realize early on that the title refers to both a point of departure and a destination. It takes a little while but we’re prepared when the time arrives.
Jack Goes Boating the movie began as a play, written by Bob Glaudini and directed by Peter DuBois, with a world premier at the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York City on February 27th, 2007. All but one of the theater actors perform in the film which Hoffman chose to be his directorial debut with co-star and theater pal John Ortiz who also co-produced. Veteran television actress Amy Ryan (The Office, In Treatment, The Wire) replaces Beth Cole from the play and John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega reprised their roles for the film.
Hoffman’s first love was for the theater, attending the 1984 Theater School at the New York State Summer School of the Arts, followed by Circle in the Square Theater’s summer program. He received a BFA in drama in 1989 from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and like many theater actors turned to minor roles in television before his big break in Scent of a Woman (1992). Hoffman embodies Jack the introvert and Jack the befuddled forty-something who drives a limo for the family business with his closest, and perhaps only friend, Clyde (John Ortiz) and his wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) with contained vigor. The phrase casting is everything is an understatement as it applies to the dynamism often lost between actors, perhaps first honed and worked through in the stage play provides the cast a history and fully and at times painfully honest place in the film. John Ortiz (Clubhouse, Law&Order) is the perfect sidekick to Hoffman’s off-center Jack, part guide and part confidant, the two share a bond that gives their scenes reason and conflict – we don’t know if Clyde really loves Jack or simply the idea of Jack, someone seemingly content with uncontested. It’s a joy to see them working this close, relatives outside the theater, pals through quiet moments and not so quiet moments, toiling over modest working class lives with dreams of something more, of the rungs of ladders just out of reach that might lead to higher ground or just another sedimentary ledge perched high above the streets of nowhere.
At the core of the story are the archetypical struggles of love, friendship, and mistakes all pulling and pulling as if a rhythm that has no beginning or end but in perpetuity like breath and heartbeats that must be transferred between the sick and the old, the living and the dying. Friends sometimes remind you how alone you feel most of the time, especially when your dreams are no more realizable than theirs. New York looms, it is cold and distant, an anonymity that is both rewarding and relentlessly vacuous.
There is little of the Amy Ryan who played Helen McCready (Gone Baby Gone) here, a mouse once caught too many times to trust, to explore, only to find herself at the mercy of a random attacker who shakes her up and in a painful way resuscitates her from some long, impenetrable dream. Her relationship with Jack (Hoffman) is tender and intimate, eventually, and it is this growing together that reveals itself over the course of the story. Clyde (Ortiz) and Lucy are on the opposite sides of a relationship, one coming and going, the other testing the waters of doubt, reconciliation and the power of overcoming a natural instinct for self punishment. The contrast of the relationships serve mirrors for one another and also for the story of people coming together for the sake of one thing only to be thrown off when things don’t go as planned. The lyricism of Hoffman’s film lingers for the viewer, invites one in to stay for a little while as opposing forces connect, break away, and the cycle of togetherness and separation is reinforced as the seasons change and hurdles lead to obstacles that can be overcome with the right amount of persistence.