Philip Seymour Hoffman makes an engagingly modest directorial debut with “Jack Goes Boating.” Opening up Bob Glaudini’s play, in which he starred onstage, with numerous Gotham locations and visualizations of the shy title character’s desires, Hoffman brings a sympathetic touch to a small dramatic piece that recalls the warm-hearted “little people” dramas of the ’50s. Bound to play well with middle-aged and older auds, the Overture release looks to generate respectable returns in moderate-scale release.
The multiplex era has not exactly been teeming with sensitively written stories of unglamorous 40ish people bashfully approaching intimacy and taking the entire running time to get into the sack. So “Jack Goes Boating” is something of a refreshing, anachronistic throwback to a time, more than half-a-century ago, when “Marty” represented what many dramatists aspired to.
Joined by two of his legit co-actors, John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega, along with Amy Ryan, Hoffman puts this emotionally valid story across with few hiccups (he sometimes can’t disguise the stage origins of scene beginnings and ends) but quite a few coughs — Jack has a vocal tic of emitting abrupt coughs when he’s nervous, which is often.
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Glaudini’s structures his story around the parallel development of one romantic relationship and the deterioration of another. Jack (Hoffman) and Clyde (Ortiz) are best friends and New York limo drivers. Genial but insecure, Jack loves reggae so much he’s gone halfway toward putting his hair into dreadlocks — which means it’s a mess. He tends to throw people’s phrases right back at them and speak in very short sentences, so uncertain is he about what to say, and he clearly has very little going on in his life.
Outgoing and truly fond of Jack, Clyde is married to Lucy (Rubin-Vega), who works at a Brooklyn funeral home where Connie (Ryan) is trying to prove her worth. Alternately attractive or plain from one moment to next, Connie is a game woman who’s evidently never caught a break; early on, she’s brutally assaulted on the subway.
Clyde and Lucy think there’s a potential match between their friends, and while Jack and Connie are amenable, they are also temperamentally inclined to take it slow; it’s dead of winter, and maybe by summer it will be time for things to blossom. In the meantime, the ever-helpful Clyde gives his land-lubber friend swimming lessons in preparation for the boat ride Jack intends to give Connie, and Jack also takes cooking lessons so he can fulfill his promise of preparing a dinner for her. In addition, he applies for the job he really wants with the MTA.
Essentially, “Jack Goes Boating” is a tale of self-improvement and optimism inspired by the prospect of being loved. Connie warns Jack that she’s not ready yet, but assures him she will be, which actually plays amusingly coming from someone her age. The cast overall does a good job of extracting humor from the naturalistic situations and dialogue, which only in the prolonged setpieces feel like theater transported to the screen. Prime example of the latter is the climactic dinner party, for which Jack has done innumerable rehearsals.
Displaying a girth that will give hope to overweight romantics everywhere, Hoffman knows his character inside and out and invites the viewer close to this limited, good-hearted fellow. As a director, Hoffman is generous to the other actors, as Ortiz brandishes many moods as the emotional Clyde, Rubin-Vega conversely goes about her business despite increasing frustration until all hell breaks loose, and Ryan shades Connie beautifully with many colors as she very cautiously allows love into her life.
Pic’s small scale is well suited to the material and the soundtrack almost overloaded with a diverse assortment of tunes.