Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Where's the Passion? -- Reflections on "Jack Goes Boating" (2010)

This shot sums up how cold and distant we feel while watching the movie.
I imagine most of us can remember falling in love for the first time. We can remember the swooning sensations, the giddy stomach butterflies, and the warm feelings we had whenever we saw or even thought about the love of our lives. Love burned in our hearts, our minds, and our groins. It was all around us. I remember once, when I was hiking with my oldest son, he kept finding rocks he swore were shaped like hearts. They weren't, but that's how love works -- it makes you see romance in a rock.

Jack Goes Boating, the directorial debut from the incredible actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, tries to find romance in a rock, and doesn't quite see it. It's a film that works so hard to not give into sentiment that it winds up distancing itself from the audience instead of connecting. A good romance needs sentiment to work, but it's a balancing act. If done right you can get CasablancaAn Affair to Remember or The Notebook. If done wrong, you can get pretty much any movie Kate Hudson has ever made (with the exception of Almost Famous).

Basics: Jack (Hoffman) is a limo driver who lives a very lonely life. He only seems to have one friend, Clyde (John Ortiz), and is constantly connected to his ancient Walkman, which he uses to listen to classic reggae songs in order to receive "good vibes." Clyde and his wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) try setting Jack up with another lonely type named Connie (Amy Ryan) and Jack falls in love. Unfortunately, the big galoot wants to do things with her and for her that are out of his comfort zone -- boating, cooking -- so he begins to work towards self-improvement. Other stuff happens, but it's not particularly exciting.

Who's to Blame?: I'm not sure if the movie's problems lie in the direction or the script. It's certainly not with the actors, all of whom give solid performance, especially Amy Ryan as Connie, Jack's love interest and John Ortiz as Clyde, Jack's best -- and only -- friend. My gut feeling is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the screenwriter, Robert Glaudini, who adapted his own stage play for the screen. Glaudini's screenplay never really gives us a reason why Jack is so shy and lonely, so he never really creates any stakes in the relationship Jack is building with Connie. It feels too natural, too normal to make for good drama. I'm not suggesting that the relationship has to be epic, but the beginnings of a romantic relationship always feel more dramatic than they actually are. It's too bad these characters don't tap into that.

Drug Use Is Not As Cool As It Once Was on the Big Screen: One of the running motifs of this film is recreational drug use. Jack is a fan of reggae, which usually inspires fans to light up a joint. Clyde has no problems with this. Later on, the characters engage in smoking hashish from a hookah and snorting lines of cocaine. I'm not a prude, but the casual way in which drugs are used here feels all for naught. It's like Hoffman needed the characters doing something just to be doing something. The drugs play little part -- dramatically or symbolically -- in this film.

Where's the Passion?: I can't remember the last time I saw a movie lacking such passion. Even the sex scene between Jack and Connie feels staged and negotiated. Maybe Hoffman's trying to make a point about hooking up in the modern era, but it doesn't feel right. I want a movie to make me feel, not think. Hell, I was watching the sex scene, listening to Connie ask Jack if he was okay with being violent and forceful without hurting her, and wondering if Jack was even erect.

I recognize that I'm being pretty critical of the film, and the irony here is that I didn't dislike it. There were plenty of positives -- some excellent shots, a few well-written scenes, and a sweet ending -- but they all feel like parts that don't quite make the whole. It's kind of like finding a partner who has a lot of things going for her, but in the end you just can't see yourself falling in love with her.

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