|Jack Goes Boating | Directed By Philip Seymour Hoffman | Written by Bob Glaudini based on his play | with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, and Daphne Rubin-Vega | Overture | 89 minutes|
Always a meticulous, quirky, and sometimes revelatory actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman in his directorial debut nurtures his splendid cast into similar performances. It helps that his source is funny, punctuated with big emotional moments, but otherwise small scale. Moreover, the material is familiar to him; he and some of the other actors had already performed in Bob Glaudini's play about the loves and losses of two Brooklyn limo drivers and the two women who tolerate them.
Hoffman's gift for the offbeat brings complexity and humanity to Jack, the hangdog loser who's being set up for a blind date with Connie (the amazing Amy Ryan). It's the bright idea of Jack's best friend, fellow driver Clyde (the terrific John Ortiz, in a repeat of his stage role), and Clyde's wife, Lucy (the outstanding Daphne Rubin-Vega, likewise a veteran of the theater production). Lucy knows Connie because they both work at a funeral parlor, a situation that contributes to the film's undercurrent of rueful black humor.
Although he's no Travis Bickle, Jack has his moments — he's grown his own feeble version of dreadlocks, he listens obsessively to a Bob Marley tape, and in general he's brutally clumsy in almost every social interaction. He's no prize, but neither is Connie. She has difficulty with human contact, a condition not helped much when she's pummeled by a pervert on the subway on the way to work. That scene demonstrates Hoffman's skill at opening up Glaudini's play. He doesn't show the actual attack, only the onset and the consequences, intensifying the shock — and, curiously enough, the comedy.
But the two outsiders see something in each other, and Jack promises he'll take Connie boating in the spring and will make her dinner in a couple of weeks. Of course, he can't cook and he can't swim, so, true friend that he is, Clyde offers to give Jack swimming lessons and puts him in touch with a chef who will teach him how to prepare something fancy. Given these goals and the means to attain them, Jack rises to the challenge, and he aspires to one of the most unusual and convincing makeovers in movies.
Such innocuous-seeming good deeds invariably bring their own punishment. The pot starts to boil over at a dinner party where booze and hashish ("Let's smoke a toast!" Clyde urges repeatedly and with increasing menace) turn the proceedings into a chaotic combination of Marty and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Portrayed with intensity and nuance by Ortiz and Rubin-Vega, the married couple relive years of betrayal, resentment, and desperation before the horrified eyes of the two innocent bystanders.
Boating shares some of the oddball intensity of WhatHappened Was . . ., the Grand Guignol chamber piece that was the directorial debut of another actor, Tom Noonan, and also Love Liza, which starred Hoffman and was written by his brother Gordy and which, at the very least, is one of the greatest movies about paint huffing ever made (next to Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth). Impressive though these films were, neither went anywhere. Hoffman's debut possesses a broader humanity, a detached but tender empathy for its broken souls, that might help it stay afloat for a broader audience.