Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s screen persona has been his blessing and his curse. Through the course of over a decade, ranging from roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), Todd Solantz’s Happiness (1998) and Charlie Kaufman’s underrated Synecdoche, New York (2008), Hoffman has made a career for himself as the slightly-overweight, baby-like, socially awkward man in search of love. His directorial debut, Jack Goes Boating, he stretches his talent only slightly, playing the same type but provides his adaptation of Bob Glaudini’s off-Broadway play with a combination of visually arresting imagery and outstanding supporting performances. Unfortunately, the film, due both to the material’s modesty and Hoffman playing safely in his comfort zone, is a quiet disappointment.
The film’s serene tone is telegraphed from its opening moments. Jack (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), lies on his bed, taking deep breaths as the title card is superimposed: Jack Goes Boating. Essentially, we are given the destination of the film, its final objective, in that combination of word and image. In order to woo his female equivalent in uncomfortable conversation, Connie (Amy Ryan), Jack decides to take her on a boating trip, once the New York City weather improves in summer. The conflict comes when we learn he doesn’t know how to swim. Admittedly, the film throws a few more conflicts at Jack for him to overcome (and to fill the small canvas of the film’s running time—-just over 80 minutes). For instance, Connie has never had a man cook for her, so Jack must take lessons in the culinary arts as well. That’s all folks.
Glaudini and Hoffman attempt to add more to the equation in the form of a foil(ed) relationship between Jack and Connie’s mutual friends Clyde (John Ortiz) and his wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Both Clyde and Lucy have Jack and Connie’s best interests at heart. Clyde teaches Jack how to swim and Lucy both gets Connie a job at a mortuary, despite the presence of a lecherous boss (Tom McCarthy). Yet, their crumbling marriage is a poison to the blooming relationship between Jack and Connie. We discover that Clyde and Lucy have attempted to grapple with their disappointments with both one another and the harsh reality of life by engaging in extramarital affairs over the course of the previous years together. As Clyde and Lucy warn the love struck Jack, every relationship comes with baggage and partners must take it upon themselves to either accept or, in a repressive act, deny that weight.
The problem with the film is we never get to the source of Jack and Connie’s wounds. While it is possible that they are the product of being around Clyde and Lucy, the wounds seem deeper, engrained in their personalities from a younger age. Throughout the film, I was reminded of Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in another Paul Thomas Anderson film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002, also starring Hoffman albeit against type). In Punch-Drunk Love, Egan’s social afflictions are tied to the endless berating he goes through at the hands of his domineering sisters. Anderson gives us the cause, its effects, and a resolution whereas Hoffman and Glaudini merely give us the latter two. The end result is that the sketch, no matter how modest in its objectives and its execution, ultimately feels incomplete.
Where the film does succeed is in Hoffman’s ability to tailor a stage play to a medium defined by the montage and whose fragments are united on the white void of the screen. For instance, Jack is continually told to “visualize” his new curriculum throughout his everyday practices. A walk across a freeway overpass becomes a swim against the tide of raging NYC traffic, the preparation of a meal in a small kitchen becomes a sensuous experience, defined by the vividly yellow rinds of a freshly squeezed lemon. Moreover, Hoffman, like Anderson in Punch-Drunk Love, knows how to draw upon the art of sound design to make us feel Jack’s growing anxieties about his newly acquired abilities. Specifically, during the climactic dinner party, the fading out of sound made me all the more aware of what Jack was missing in the kitchen. As you can probably surmise, the sources of the drama are small and intimate and not to be underestimated, but they are also not incredibly enthralling.
This becomes a problem when Hoffman and Ryan’s performances are so similar. They both play awkwardness really well, as an early scene regarding the fate of Connie’s father illustrates. Yet, their quirks and the lack of a cause for them alienates us; we are unable to fully align ourselves with them because we do not understand them. In Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson gives us a contrast between Sandler and Watson, both at the level of performance and at the level of the establishment of character, that side-steps this stalemate. Glaudini’s play is fundamentally flawed from that perspective, as we feel kept at arm’s length. Not even a familiarity with the Hoffman type gets us past the vestibule of Jack’s psychological malfunctions (this goes for Connie as well).
This flaw would not be as noticeable if the characters of Clyde and Lucy had also been kept in a lower register but, given the script and the powerful performances of both Ortiz and Rubin-Vega, we cannot help but wish the emphasis had been reversed. They are more interesting characters because we understand their dilemmas and the stakes that are tied to the consequences of their actions. Moreover, valuable time is wasted on Tom McCarthy’s creepy boss, a character whose interactions with Connie and Lucy ultimately go unmobilized in the grand scheme of the picture. Like Punch-Drunk Love, Jack Goes Boating is a shaggy, warts and all, tale of a romance. Yet, unlike its predecessor, Jack sinks slowly before our eyes, despite of (and, in some cases, perhaps because of) the ambitiousness of its modesty.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.