Philip Seymour Hoffman enjoys a lofty reputation as one of America's most respected character actors, and the title role in 'Jack Goes Boating' fits him like a glove. Introverted, insecure, a bit off kilter, and unable to fully assimilate into mainstream society, Jack endures a desolate existence as a New York City limo driver. When he meets Connie (Amy Ryan), an equally shy and lonely masseuse at a funeral home (yes, that's right, she relaxes the skin of corspes after rigor mortis sets in), he sees a fleeting opportunity to make a meaningful connection, and boldly decides to improve himself. Unable to swim (a metaphor if there ever was one), he takes lessons from his best friend Clyde (John Ortiz) at a local pool, and begins to learn how to cook. He then treads gingerly into the waters of a new relationship and tries to navigate the tricky current, just as Clyde confronts troubling issues with his long-time love (and Connie's coworker), Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega).
Based on an acclaimed off-Broadway play that starred Hoffman, Ortiz, and Rubin-Vega, 'Jack Goes Boating' is a quiet, introspective character study of everyday people. It makes no sweeping statements or grandiose judgments; it just tells a simple tale, laces it with gentle comedy, and allows us to take from it what we will. If anything, it seems to strive to foster a greater appreciation and respect for the fragile nature of the human condition, and show how small steps can yield great rewards. In retrospect, it reminds me a lot of 'Marty,' that wonderful 1955 Best Picture winner that nabbed Ernest Borgnine a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar about New York misfits who struggle to overcome their personal infirmities and embrace the joys and risks of life. 'Jack,' however, never comes close to eclipsing or even equaling 'Marty' from either an emotional or artistic standpoint. It features fine performances and stellar direction from Hoffman in his freshman effort, but fails to provoke the kind of visceral response that makes films of this sort stick to our ribs. Sure, we see elements of ourselves in all the characters, and some of the quirky humor rings true, but at least for me, somehow the whole enterprise still falls flat.
Adapting plays can be tricky business, but low-key character pieces can really test a screenwriter's mettle, and 'Jack Goes Boating,' despite its New York locations and urban flavor, doesn't sufficiently shed its theatrical roots. It's the kind of piece that loses its intimacy when "opened up" for the screen. As a director, Hoffman shows some talent, and tries valiantly to both maintain the play's small focus and preserve its subtleties, but I often questioned such choices during the film. The movie is well crafted (Hoffman employs clever but never intrusive bits of technique to visually punch up the material), but lacks energy, often plodding along on what seems to be an aimless path. The characters and performances are interesting and affecting enough, but only sporadically rivet our attention. Fireworks come at a premium, and arrive a bit too late in the game to wake us up.
Hoffman nails his character and never for a moment seems anything less than completely natural. He develops a marvelously delicate rapport with Ryan, who excels in this type of working-class, no-glamor part. Her expressive eyes add layers to her portrayal, and, as the only major player who did not perform in the original stage production, she fits into the pre-fab ensemble well. Ortiz and Rubin-Vega (best known for creating the role of Mimi in the Broadway production of 'Rent') seem quite comfortable as the film's other couple, adding welcome spice to a too often mildly seasoned brew.
'Jack Goes Boating' is one of those films for which you really have to be in the mood. Though it's a promising directorial debut for Hoffman, its languorous story requires patience and a willingness to examine all the subtle facets of the characters. The night I viewed it, it left me a bit cold, but I can't shake the nagging suspicion that it might play better on subsequent viewings, when one can forget about the plot and delve deeper into the psyches of the subjects on screen. Whether you want to invest that time will depend on how much this quiet film speaks to you during the initial viewing. Let's just say that if somewhere down the road I want to watch a story about shy, insecure New Yorkers forging tentative relationships, I'll pop in 'Marty' instead.
The 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer possesses a natural yet flat look, which unfortunately saps some of the film's immediacy. Noticeable grain distinguishes the pristine source material, lending the image an earthy texture that suits the working-class story well. A wan color palette also contributes to and heightens the urban feel and reflects the characters' inner turmoil. Contrast seems a tad on the bright side, pushing white levels a shade too far and draining primaries of vibrancy. Hoffman's pasty complexion often appears overly pale as a result, especially in the swimming scenes, but the rest of the fleshtones look well-balanced and natural. Black levels are sufficiently strong and deep, but not dense enough to make crush a concern.
Close-ups are vivid, yet lack the razor sharpness crisper transfers provide, and details are nicely defined both in the foreground and background. A slight amount of digital noise sometimes creeps into the picture, but for the most part the image remains clear, and no banding, pixelation, or edge enhancement could be detected. This is a very serviceable transfer, but it won't excite the eyes or provoke any "wow" reactions.
'Jack Goes Boating' is a dialogue-driven film, and consequently, sonic fireworks are absent from the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. The front-heavy mix rarely employs any surround activity, even during exterior New York City scenes, but the audio sounds sufficiently full-bodied, with well-modulated highs and lows. Conversations are always properly prioritized and easy to comprehend, and mild stereo separation across the front channels lends some interest to an otherwise rudimentary track. The subwoofer remains almost silent, but low-end tones add welcome resonance, and the music by Grizzly Bear and Evan Lurie enjoys fine fidelity and fills the room well. Like the video, the audio is unspectacular, and possesses no notable deficiencies.
A few minor extras provide some background on the film, but none of the material is essential or especially enlightening.
'Jack Goes Boating' features fine performances and marks the directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I had trouble connecting with this fragile tale about connection. Slowly paced and a tad too understated, the movie never gripped me despite its interesting characters and relatable themes. Video and audio quality are about what you'd expect for a film of this sort, and extras are as wispy as the plot. Fans of delicate character studies should surely give this quirky romantic comedy a try, but its mainstream appeal is limited.