Thursday, September 16, 2010

Philip Seymour Hoffman gets behind the camera and stars in JACK GOES BOATING

Is there a more empathetic actor currently on screen than Philip Seymour Hoffman?  Maybe -- but nobody draws me into the life of whatever character he's playing -- from Happiness to Flawless, The Talented Mr. Ripley to Synecdoche, New York -- better than this portly and not-quite-what-you'd-call-gorgeous actor. Even when he plays a sex scene, as he does in his new film JACK GOES BOATING, so well does he draw you into the moment, that I swear you are with him every second, all the way -- in his skin and rooting for the guy like crazy -- with not a shred of embarrassment at his pasty white and ample body so fully displayed.  This is a wonderful accomplishment, but it is just one of so many the actor, shown below, has managed.

As the titular Jack, Hoffman stars in an ensemble piece in which he shares the screen with three other very fine performers: Amy Ryan, Daphne Rubin-Vega and (the guy who pretty much steals the movie) John Ortiz. Hoffman also has chosen to make this film his directorial debut -- from a stage play (which he also directed) that has morphed into a screenplay, both of them by Robert Glaudini.  This is a small, slice-of-life work that details the friendship between Jack and his best buddy Clyde (Mr. Ortiz), both of whom work as limo drivers.  Jack is, shall we say, socially under-developed, so Clyde and his woman Lucy (Ms Rubin-Vega) set him up on a date with a new employee, Connie (Ms Ryan) from Lucy's office. Complications ensue.

However, while these complications are very small potatoes compared with those that most movies would give us, they are major indeed to the protagonists (all four characters would qualify as such) and so become equally important to us.  The actor/director understands how vital is our identification with all the characters, and his loving way with incident, pacing, and performance -- together with the work of the fine cast -- makes this happen. Hoffman has also succeeded in removing any hint of the stage-bound from this work. He hasn't simply "opened up" the play; he's made a full-fledged movie.  

There is also consistent intelligence on display, without a hint of pretension. The movie is effortlessly lyrical in its camera-work, settings, editing and choice of music (have scenes of swimming lessons ever seemed so warm and benign?).  The problem with the film only crops up toward the finale -- which goes too far over the top. Given what we've seen up to then, it is difficult to buy into the sudden havoc and melt-down, particularly on the part of Jack. We have not been prepared for this, as we have regarding the situation between Clyde and Lucy -- whose own meltdown Ortiz and Rubin-Vegan handle so very well. They ground the movie and bring it home. Ortiz (left) in particular manages, even in quiet repose, to just about break our hearts.

Ryan, at right, who is always great (Gone Baby Gone, Bob FunkThe Missing Person) takes a role that could  easily descend into cliché and lends it utter reality. She and Hoffman make a great pair; I'd love to see more of  the lives of these characters beyond the confines of this film. Despite that somewhat misshapen finale, Hoffman should be proud: He's bitten off only a bit more than he can chew and has given us a lovely little movie. For his fans, it's a don't-miss; for the as-yet-unconverted, it will come as a nice surprise.

Jack Goes Boating, from Overture Films, opens Friday, September 17, in New York and Los Angeles. Click here for theaters and ticket purchase.

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