Jack Goes Boating
Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman
It's hard to play "simple" without playing "retarded." When actors suppress their intelligence to play the kind of shy working class sweethearts the entertainment industry tends to ignore—though it may be hard to think of many you've met outside of its efforts—it's all too easy for their noble, hesitant "little people" to come off as patronizing. Especially when you have them wearing goggles underwater, grinning wildly at the camera.
The bubble-blower in question is the Jack in Jack Goes Boating, a reggae-loving limo driver played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who also makes his directorial debut). Jack's life consists of polite smiles, hesitant conversations with a long-married couple who appear to be his only friends (John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega) and dreams of working for the MTA. His pals hook the nice guy up with a downtrodden wallflower (Amy Ryan), only to have the budding courtship bring their own relationship issues to light.
Robert Glaudini's adaptation of his own play is marred with clichés both theatrical (do all dinner parties end with screams and soul-baring?) and cinematic (what's with all the moaning, maudlin indie ballads?). But the cast—all but Ryan originated the roles on stage—does bring some twists on the familiar. Hoffman the director may be fond of poetic interludes involving his shirtless body, but Hoffman the actor keeps Jack's sensitivity from turning too cherubic, acknowledging the frustration behind his desire for "positive vibes." You buy that Ryan's perennial victim could be attracted to the empathetic butterball, even if you wonder what meds he's on. It's also refreshing that Jack's nobility doesn't heal the wounds of his struggling friends, a duo seething under forced smiles, unable to remember who broke whose heart first or who gave up trying last.
For all the careful consideration and thespian craft, just how satisfying you find Boating may depend on whether you share Barton Fink's empathy for the common man and whether you wish Rocky had nothing to do with boxing. But when Hoffman gives us Jack in slo-mo, pretending to swim on a highway overpass, we've gone past simple to saccharine, if not just stupid.
Opens September 17