John Ortiz gives memorable performance

By David Orlikoff

A small mountain of obligatory information stands between audiences and good review of “Jack Goes Boating.” This film is Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s feature directorial debut, though he has been directing theater for 13 years.

Hoffman also plays the title character alongside co-stars John Ortiz, who plays Clyde, and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Clyde’s wife, Lucy. Amy Ryan completes the foursome as Connie, Jack’s love interest and is the only main actor not reprising their role from Bob Glaudini’s hit New York play of the same name.

These two couples serving as foils for each other and their relationships is the cornerstone of the film. Clyde and Lucy have been together a long time and not everything has been pleasant. Meanwhile, Jack and Connie take their sweet time in becoming intimate while it seems they are meant for each other, if only because we can’t imagine anyone else putting up with them.

In the opening overhead shot, Jack lies awake in bed, small and uncomfortable even unto himself. Jack and Clyde have the same job, driving limos for Jack’s uncle, but very different lives in New York. Clyde is married and has more passions and hobbies (both good and bad) than Jack, giving him a much fuller life. Jack has constructed his life into an extremely small sphere combining family and friends with his menial job and having nothing on the side. His character is dominated by the search for female companionship and the changes he must make to get it. Connie is unspecified enough to be the symbol of Jack’s willingness to open up and receive love.

With his illustrious history, and name large on the marquee, one must look forward to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting. Time and again, Hoffman has proved himself an artist and a craftsman of the highest caliber working today. That’s why it is so disappointing to see him play such a mediocre role. There is little establishment of Jack’s character, just as there is little establishment in Connie’s character or their relationship. Instead of convincing us these people are real or close to it, Hoffman settles for just good enough to get the idea across.

He relies on himself as an icon, and on audiences’ familiarity with his previous roles in films such as Todd Solondz’ “Happiness” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” where he played similar geeky, earnest, contentedly small-lived, pathetic men. Perhaps acting and directing a film proved non-complementary tasks, or perhaps the character and writing didn’t fully translate to the big screen. Either way, there’s no reason not to still be excited about Hoffman’s next acting venture.

Early scenes are as minimalist as the opening shot and transition quickly to a middle already in the works. We aren’t shown entire conversations and there doesn’t appear to be any special significance for what’s given. Beginnings are rare for activities and conversations alike, and audiences instead watch meandering middles. The overall film similarly seems to be stuck in act two, and by the time you notice it ending it’s already over.

The film has the structure of a moral tale but without morality. Men are not so much judged but condemned by their outlook on life, and not necessarily how they live it. This theme nonetheless provides the opportunity for the best, most cinematic scenes of the film. Clyde has Jack practicing “visualization” techniques to help him learn to swim. They are so successful that Jack continues to visualize more things. Each of these sequences are purely cinematic and spot-on. Unfortunately, other cute cinematic techniques come across as obvious and contrived—an academic attempt that proves all too calculated.

Unquestioningly the best thing about this film is John Ortiz’ character Clyde. His plotline is more interesting, his character more varied and fleshed out, his acting and emotions more intense and our empathy for him much deeper than for Jack or any other character in any other film made subpar by comparison. Nothing in the film is honestly bad, just disappointingly uninspired.

I am David Orlikoff, and for the past two years I have been a film critic for The Chronicle.

Since my first semester with The Chronicle, I have been to pre-screenings alongside Chicago’s big names. I have interviewed actors and directors whose work I deeply respect. This experience has been the most valuable one of my college and professional life. I may still have the odd article show up in the paper, but consider this my official farewell.