Philip Seymour Hoffman's directorial debut, "Jack Goes Boating," offers an alternative for those tired of the conventions of Hollywood romantic comedy.
Arguably, it replaces one set of conventions for another -- those of the typical Off-Broadway dramedy -- but I'll take shaggy weirdness over cynical slickness every time. Adapted by Bob Glaudini from his own play, "Jack Goes Boating" indeed comes directly from Off-Broadway, where Hoffman played the title character. Hoffman reprises his role on screen, and reunites with his costars John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega.
Hoffman's lonely bachelor Jack is a sad-sack striver whom we catch in mid-"strive." Alongside best bud Clyde (Ortiz), Jack works as a New York City limo driver, but he harbors an aspiration to climb the next rung on the social ladder by getting a job with the MTA. Clyde has a more important advancement in mind for his friend: pairing Jack up with Connie (Amy Ryan, always welcome), a misfit co-worker of Clyde's wife, Lucy (Rubin-Vega).
With his hair "styled" in an abortive attempt at dreadlocks, Jack demonstrates he's a man of enthusiasms (lately, The Melodians' Rastafarian anthem "Rivers of Babylon," which he takes with him wherever he goes). So when Connie suggests that a boating excursion would be nice, when the weather warms up, Jack seizes on the thought. If he's to get in a boat, he'll have to learn to swim, and Clyde agrees to begin giving his friend lessons. Another vein of self-improvement finds Jack having accidentally agreed to make dinner for Connie. Time to learn how to cook a meal.
In its early-going, "Jack Goes Boating" proves especially tender and sweet. Though Lucy is a world-weary type, her husband is a conspicuously dedicated friend, whose loyalty to Jack is touching. The sensitive Connie also gives Jack good reason to hope in their awkward but warmhearted verbal dances. Still, there's a reason Lucy warns Jack, about relationships, that "things'll come up that you have to live with." It's clear that dysfunction has brought these characters to a place where they need each other perhaps a little too desperately, and greater signs of dysfunction begin to seep into the narrative on the way to a third-act social disaster: a dinner party that goes horribly wrong.
Hoffman's actorly sensibility allows the film's best moments, expressed in gestures and non-verbal signifiers (nervous throat-clearing, an unanswered question hanging in the air). The characters' spectacular "in vino veritas" cracking up at the climax is a bit heavy-handed, but there's an intriguing contrast that builds to the moment, as we watch one relationship that's troubled -- Clyde and Lucy's longstanding marriage -- and another that's just trying to get off the ground.
In one way or another, all of the characters yearn for an indefinite future, emblematized by the idea of the boating trip. Jack puts his trust in the "positive vibe" he's been cultivating, a willfulness mirrored in Clyde's swimming instruction for Jack to visualize himself achieving results. And perhaps the answer to all their problems is just that simple: an agreement to forgive the flaws and "see" the best in each other.