Jack Goes Boating (Blu-ray)
For his directorial debut, Philip Seymour Hoffman helmed a character study as intensely focused as the film that won him an Oscar for best actor. But Jack, the title character (also played by Hoffman), couldn’t be more different from Truman Capote, the ambitious writer hell-bent on fame at all costs. Jack is content to pass through life anonymously, if he can just get it together to do a few simple things, like taking a girl he likes for a boat ride. None of the characters in Jack Goes Boating will ever be famous, and none of the events would make the papers. It’s a study in miniature of ordinary people – who, of course, are never entirely ordinary, if you look closely enough.
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Film Length: 91 min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (DD 5.1 compatibility track at 640kb/ps)
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Sept. 23, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Jan. 18, 2010
Jack (Hoffman) works as a limo driver with Clyde (John Ortiz) for a Manhattan car service. Clyde and his wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), are Jack’s only friends. Besides spending time with Clyde and Lucy, Jack seems to have few interests, other than a passion for reggae. (He’s especially devoted to “Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodics.) A retiring man who frequently doesn’t complete his sentences, Jack doesn’t seem to have fully decided whether he wants to engage with the world.
Clyde and Lucy think Jack needs a girlfriend, and Lucy has someone in mind: Connie (Amy Ryan), who works with Lucy at a funeral home in Brooklyn. In many ways, it’s a likely match. Like Jack, Connie is shy and retiring, but she doesn’t have the luxury of remaining disengaged. Among other reasons, men routinely come onto her, including hers and Connie’s boss, Dr. Bob (actor and director Tom McCarthy).
The main action of Jack Goes Boating consists of Jack’s and Connie’s stop-and-start progress toward each other after Clyde and Lucy introduce them over dinner. The path is not a straight one. Their first meeting occurs in the winter, and Connie mentions that it might be nice to row a boat on the lake in Central Park next summer. Jack decides to make it happen, but he’s afraid of the water because he can’t swim; so Clyde undertakes to teach him at a pool uptown. The swimming lessons provide a gauge of Jack’s gradual progress at learning to navigate a broader world.
At one point Jack offers to cook dinner for Connie, but then has to learn how to prepare the meal. Clyde introduces him to a professional chef at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (Salvatore Inzerillo), who also happens to be a former flame of Lucy’s. Clyde mockingly refers to him as “the Cannoli”, and his appearance highlights the counterpoint in Jack Goes Boating. As Jack and Connie tentatively draw closer, the cracks in Clyde’s and Lucy’s relationship are becoming more apparent. Clyde tries to tell Jack how difficult marriage is, but Jack just looks at him blankly. Clyde might as well be trying to explain the fine points of synchronized swimming to someone who’s still just learning to stay afloat. The conflicted feelings that the Cannoli evokes in Clyde don’t register with Jack. He’s too focused on his dinner preparations, which he approaches with an intensity that would put most event planners to shame.
Jack’s big dinner serves as the film’s grand finale, and it is by turns touching, comical, absurd and disturbing. To say more would be a spoiler.
Jack Goes Boating originated as a four-character off-Broadway play produced in 2007 by LAByrinth Theater Company, an actor- and writer-driven organization whose impressive membership includes Moon’s Sam Rockwell, Law and Order: CI’s Eric Bogosian, Dexter’s David Zayas and Lauren Velez, Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg and Doubt writer/director John Patrick Shanley. Hoffman has been a member since 1995, and even as his film career has prospered, he’s continued to develop, direct and star in LAByrinth productions. Jack is the first one he’s taken to the screen.
Hoffman, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega reprise their original roles, with Ryan as the sole replacement. Numerous small parts had to be created for the film script, and many have been cast with LAByrinth regulars (including an amusing Stephen Adly Guirgis as a brusque city transit employee). Both the play and the film script were written by Robert Glaudini, an actor and playwright and also a LAByrinth member. (Both Glaudini and his daughter, Lola, appeared memorably on NYPD Blue; she has a cameo in Jack as a limousine passenger.)
Hoffman worked closely with Glaudini in adapting the script, and the team clearly took pains to ensure that the final result would feel neither stage-bound nor artificially “opened up”. The character of Jack appears to have resonated deeply with Hoffman. As his comments in the disc’s supplements suggest, he used the process of developing the film as a way of delving even more deeply into Jack’s inner world. On stage, he had mastered an astonishing array of small gestures to convey the thoughts and feelings of a man whose essential quality is that he doesn’t express much. One of the play’s high points was a wordless scene in which Jack mimed every detail of preparing the dinner he was planning for Connie. What started out as a kind of compulsive perfectionism became, by the end of the scene, a devotional act of love.
That kind of thing works in the intimate setting of a 200-seat playhouse, but film is a different medium. As both actor and director, Hoffman has inventively deployed cinematic means to draw the viewer into Jack’s interior world. His swimming lessons with Clyde supply a wealth of visual possibilities, as the camera switches perspective, follows them in and out of the water and, in one lovely sequence, leads us into Jack’s imagination while he’s walking home over a pedestrian bridge and continues the mental discipline of “visualizing” his swimming exercises. After years of shuttling back and forth between stage and screen, Hoffman seems to have developed precision calipers for judging just how much performance is needed to get something across – and no more. It’s not hard for an actor to be interesting when playing an extroverted, eccentric character, but holding an audience’s attention with a protagonist who’s both ordinary and inexpressive is no small task. Hoffman did it on stage, and he’s done it again on film.
He’s just as adept at directing the other major roles. Ortiz and Rubin-Vega give nuanced, lived-in performances as an established couple who have been hiding from the issues between them, using Jack as a distraction. Ryan, who has been exceptional on The Wire, The Office and in Gone Baby Gone, brings a crucial sense of depth to Connie that transcends Glaudini’s script. We never learn much about Connie’s background, but Ryan effectively conveys a sense that there is a background to be learned. Ryan makes us curious about Connie, and that makes Jack’s interest in her believable.
In its bare outlines, Jack Goes Boating reads like a beginner’s Sundance entry: slice-of-life, everyday people, no big events, intense focus on character. The difference is that this independent film was made by seasoned professionals, all of whom could have been spending their time on more lucrative and commercial projects. This was a labor of love, and it shows.
Hoffman and his cinematographer Matt Hupfel (with whom he worked on The Savages) have given Jack’s world a richly detailed look with a comfortably warm but not overly saturated palette. Even though most of the film is set during winter, and snow is often falling, it doesn’t look cold, as if the film is looking forward toward a more favorable season. The Blu-ray nicely reproduces the varied tones and textures of the urban settings through which Jack and his friends navigate as they pursue their various activities, and the images are especially interesting, because production designer Thérèse DePrez went to great lengths to find New York locations that hadn’t been previously used: a huge indoor pool in Harlem, a funeral home in a stately Brooklyn mansion, a downtown supermarket where Lucy helps Jack shop, an office at the Metropolitan Transit Authority where Jack applies for a job.
Hupfel lights these disparate environments subtly, bringing out the distinctive character of each one, without attempting to prettify or glamorize it. His work here reminded me of Harris Savides’ delicate lighting for Milk (minus the period considerations). Although I did not see the film theatrically, the Blu-ray appears to reproduce Hupfel’s work accurately and effectively. The image is detailed, with solid black levels and no noise or digital artifacts.
Although the film contains no “showcase” scenes, there are numerous opportunities for environmental sonics (e.g., during Jack’s swimming lessons), and the sound designers have responded appropriately. Dialogue is clear and intelligible. The original musical score, which is credited to the Brooklyn-based band Grizzly Bear (who also scored the current Oscar favorite Blue Valentine), is woven gently into the background along with other songs appropriate to the scene (such as the aforementioned “Babylon”).
Jack’s New York (SD; 1.78:1; enhanced for 16:9) (3:51). Brief interviews with Hoffman, DePrez and others about finding the locations.
From the Stage to the Big Screen (SD; 1.78:1; enhanced for 16:9) (4:35). Interviewees include producers Beth O’Neill and Peter Saraf, as well as Glaudini, Hoffman, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega. Although one would like to hear even more from the actors about the evolution of their characters and performances, what’s here is informative. Of particular note are still photographs of the original stage production, which give some sense of how Jack was initially conceived theatrically.
Deleted Scenes (SD; 1.78:1; enhanced for 16:9) (1:52). Two very brief scenes, both set on the subway. One involves Jack and, appropriately, has no dialogue. The other involves Connie and yet another guy who tries to pick her up; he doesn’t get the response he expected.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is included as a separate extra. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Stone and Let Me In; these can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are separately available from the features menu.
Few successful film actors have been as adept as Philip Seymour Hoffman at leveraging commercial success into artistic dividends. While continuing to work in mainstream films, he’s never abandoned the modestly budgeted arenas that guarantee creative freedom, and he’s used his growing acclaim to get projects made that might otherwise have gone begging. His Oscar for Capote helped get such films as The Savages and Synecdoche, New York made, and it was almost certainly Hoffman’s name that brought prospective movie producers to see the original play of Jack Goes Boating. Hoffman has said that he initially resisted directing the film, but that Ortiz pushed him to do it. On the strength of this effort, he should keep pushing.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
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