By Jonathan Kiefer
When did we first register the greatness of Philip Seymour Hoffman? Was it as early as his turn on that old Law & Order episode in 1991? Was it not until he’d worked his way up to playing the raucous rock scribe Lester Bangs in Almost Famous? Or Truman Capote in Capote? It probably wasn’t when he played Robin Williams’ med-school roommate in Patch Adams.
Anyway, what an odd and unlikely movie star he’s been. He is refreshingly antithetical to the likes of prettier men—as The Talented Mr. Ripley showed, by wedging Hoffman’s pudgy form in between the likes of Jude Law and Matt Damon—and a likable weirdo by contrast. He’s less smooth, less certain, less comfortable in his own skin—more like the rest of us.
He’s been onto something. And his lack of vanity has been bracing. By now, Hoffman has played a small army of tortured souls, and he’s done so under distinctive directors, including Todd Solondz, the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Charlie Kaufman and Paul Thomas Anderson. Now, having given us nearly all the twitchy, chubby, sweaty vulnerability we can take, Hoffman has begun directing himself. And here he is with Jack Goes Boating. How do we admit to ourselves that it lacks greatness?
The Hoffman cachet has been steadily cumulative so, of course, an off film is no catastrophe. But it does seem like a sort of creative plateau. We can tell ourselves that Hoffman’s directorial debut shows a careful consideration of what works for him.
Adapted by Robert Glaudini from his own very play-like play, Jack Goes Boating tends to make itself cinematic only by defaulting to approved indie-film formulas.
In the end, it’s just another pitiable-fidgety-misfits-in-tentative-love story, this time with a soundtrack full of folk-rock band Grizzly Bear. Hoffman plays a plump, pasty limo driver, who’s set up by his married pals (John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega) for a date with a fellow delicate soul (Amy Ryan). The film follows the subsequent, mostly muted anguish about the vicissitudes of relationships. The net effect is disappointingly 100 percent risk-free, somehow trifling and overdetermined, all at once.
It is less jaded than it sounds, thankfully, and it has a hip enough vibe, with a real affinity for the maladjusted and for the romance of snowy New York. All the performances are strong, subtle and inherently alive—almost so much so that they seem inconvenienced by the contrivance of dramatic narrative. Jack Goes Boating is what we might call a mixed blessing.
It’s not hard to get behind the movie’s warm and fuzzy message: people have flaws and love takes patience. But it’s a vaguely retro sensibility, as if Jack Goes Boating were conceived at some point during the culturally gentler 1970s. Hoffman comes by it honestly enough, but it’s time to move on. What else has he got?
Jack Goes Boating
Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman
With Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Thomas McCarthy and Amy Ryan