Thursday, October 7, 2010

Jack Goes Boating

(Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating/ dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman;Overture Films, 2010)
       Theater is not so much an originator of cinema as an antagonist. It seems that, even if there is still the occasional movie based on a play, we have successfully pulled cinema far enough from the stage to consider them separate entities; art forms that share some basic traits while respecting each other’s separate spaces. But Philip Seymour Hoffman, the director and star of Jack Goes Boating, is a man of both worlds, and his film is indeed based on a play. Since the playwright—Robert Glaudini, another man of both worlds—authored the screenplay himself, the results should be interesting.
            The film begins as if Hoffman wasn’t sure how to start the translation. His character, Jack, sits in a limo directly across from his fellow-driver pal, Clyde (John Ortiz), who is cheerily chatting him up about a reggae song that plays on the radio in Jack’s car and about future plans with a girl he wants to set Jack up with. Both men’s faces are shot in close-ups, leaving us uncertain of their location and proximity. The scene ends with a cut to a wide shot of Clyde driving off while Jack sits in his car, in the stark winter cold of an even starker lot overlooking towering Manhattan. It is only now when we become aware that Jack is a limo driver, and that this story will have him face a challenge.
That challenge is Connie (Amy Ryan), who finds Jack as much of a source of nervous attraction as he finds her. They are introduced at the apartment of Clyde and his wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who works with Connie at a phone solicitation business. Connie is just as awkward as Jack, but more vulnerable to the ravages of the city; she is attacked on the subway to work one day, and spends some time in a hospital bed recovering from bloody facial wounds. It is at this point that Jack takes the opportunity to win her over, bringing her a stuffed Koala in the hospital and offering to make dinner for her soon. “Nobody’s ever cooked for me!” a drugged-out Connie exclaims. But Jack will. Since he doesn’t know how to cook, he starts taking cooking lessons with a friend of Lucy’s. And since Connie expressed her desire to go boating in the summer, he has also started taking swimming lessons with Clyde.
By this point, Hoffman is on surer footing. He directs a fine scene in a swimming pool, and never loses the sense that he knows his character backwards and forwards (he previously performed this role on stage). Yet, like Jack, Hoffman is too anxious to prove himself; in this case, to prove himself worthy of filmmaking. Hoffman inserts a variety of extended montages without realizing that they aren’t advancing the story per-se. One montage features Jack on a bridge, imagining that he is swimming, as the water of the swimming pool is superimposed on to his bundled-up body. It must have sounded symbolic, but it reeks of art-house kitsch.  Scenes like these aren’t helped by the watery, droning music of the band Grizzly Bear, which feels inessential to the film.
(John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Jack Goes Boating/dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman Overture Films, 2010)
            What is most intriguing about Jack Goes Boating is not its use of cinema, but simply—surprise—its use of characters. Ironically, Jack and Connie are not the most interesting people in the film. Both seem to have been damaged by unclear experiences in their pasts. Both have let sensitivity get the better of them in life, and both are sexually frustrated.  But while Jack’s courtship of Connie provides some sweet and funny moments, it’s never in doubt that they’ll get together. The truly fascinating people in this story are Clyde and Lucy. Starting at the end of one early scene, after Jack and Connie leave their apartment, Lucy abruptly walks in to another room. We know this is a marriage in trouble from this point on, and the way Ortiz and Vega play these bitter, dysfunctional, yet highly compassionate people provides some of the most splendid acting the movies have seen this year.  Glaudini surely felt the importance of these two characters, too, because the wisest touch he adds to his screenplay (I cannot speak for the play) is the light suggestion that Clyde may be the real protagonist of this drama.
            As for Hoffman, his own performance, and his sixth sense for fine actors, make this film more watchable than most plays, but more trying than most films. In the end, it feels as though he tried too hard with his camera; couldn’t he see that letting the theatre in the story take over could actually provide the surest cinema? The great Elia Kazan knew this fact; his films such as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront are works that translate the enclosed, exaggerated nature of the theater in to claustrophobic, fearsome pieces of moving imagery. Jack Goes Boating approaches the cinematic Kazan in its best moments; it settles for lazy visual experimentation in its worst. Cinema is the child parent Theater might never come to terms with. Maybe the relationship can be expressed in the lovely close-up of Clyde that is the second-to-last shot of the film; something gained for one side, something lost for the side that enabled it.