Friday 4 November 2011

Taking a punt: "Jack Goes Boating"

The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's fairly lovely directorial debut Jack Goes Boating follows the courtship of two individuals of a certain age, and in a particular wage bracket. Jack (Hoffman himself) is a limo driver who finds himself eking out an existence on the wrong side of New York; Connie (Amy Ryan) has a menial job in a funeral home, where she's subject to the wandering hands of her boss. On their first date together, in the snow, they vow they will go boating together in Central Park when summer comes, although there's at least one obstacle between this planned idyll and its realisation: Jack is terrified of water.

The main body of the film, adapted from Bob Glaudini's play, is what happens over the next six months: it is, admittedly, something of an obvious metaphor for self-improvement that Jack should don his Speedos and waddle gamely into the shallow end, but the pool in which he learns to first doggy-paddle, then breaststroke is believably shabby and municipal, for its part. You sense the film, like every last one of its characters, is well aware of its own limitations, and you catch it slowly expanding beyond them. At a brisk 89 minutes, the film is very good on the hectoring pace of modern life: it's full of people trying to make a little time and space for themselves in the face of interventions from friends, colleagues and strangers, and Hoffman directs in some cherishable pauses, which I fear may lead to Jack Goes Boating being mistaken for one of those films in which nothing very much happens.

In fact, a lot happens offscreen here, and the film cocks a snook at romcom convention by making the notional leads' best friends - John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega, as a married couple who spend these six months attempting to get over a prior betrayal of trust - perhaps even more interesting and complex than the pair we're supposed to be pulling for. These characters live and breathe and yearn between the lines: there's almost no narrative reason for it to be in the film, but Jack Goes Boating gains an extra dimension for the inclusion of the scene where Ortiz, in a plush hotel to pick up a fare, spies a love rival, a chef, putting the final touches to a lavish spread, and - sad-eyed - appears to realise he would be unlikely to bring such delights to his own table.

The rest exists in much the same play-to-film tradition as an item like Marty, in whose heavy footsteps the title character clearly treads: dorky, with a hacky seasonal cough, never quite sure what to say or do or do with his hands or his stringy hair (hence the beanie welded to his scalp for the opening half-hour), Hoffman's Jack is an object lesson in how to play regular and decent without being patronising. Ryan's Connie, meanwhile, nervous around any kind of intimacy after so long on the bench, probably wouldn't know it, but she's little less than ravishing. With the aid of cinematographer Mott Hupfel, Hoffman shoots the actress as she's never been shot before, homely Beadie Russell from The Wire suddenly appearing in a whole new light: this woman's a true catch.

With these characters having thus been set up in our affections, it's a tiny pity they should retreat to the best friends' apartment for an extended bout of late-Act Two doorslamming - as though the film were desperate to snatch back something theatrical from the jaws of an outright triumph - but the home stretch comes through with some poignant and very carefully calibrated material. An unusual romance, then - mature in the best possible sense of the word - Jack Goes Boating takes a punt on a longer game, doing its very best to avoid the flimsy contrivance underpinning so much of our contemporary romantic comedy and drama. And you do want to see Jack and Connie on the lake together.

Jack Goes Boating opens in selected cinemas from today.

No comments:

Post a Comment