When most actors get the chance to direct a movie in which they also star, it’s ordinarily a vanity project. In the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman and “Jack Goes Boating,” it’s that, but also penitential—for himself and, sometimes, the audience as well.
The little independent movie is Bob Glaudini’s adaptation of his own play, about the eponymous fellow, an introverted, sad-sack limo driver who’s trying to get a love life and a new job, too. While Jack’s applying for a post with the MTA, his pal and fellow driver Clyde (John Ortiz) and Clyde’s wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) hook him up with Connie (Amy Ryan), an equally sad-sack person who works with Lucy at a funeral home whose owner is an entrepreneur running some sort of telephone operation on the side.
The crux of the script is that Jack and Connie gradually hit it off while Clyde and Lucy’s marriage runs into difficulty. And the cause of the couple’s collapse derives from their efforts to help Jack. Clyde happily offers to teach his chubby pal to swim—cue lots of amusing pool scenes—in order to further Jack’s plan to take Connie boating. But when Jack also dreams of cooking a fine meal for her and needs instruction in the culinary arts, Clyde offers to introduce him to a chef who just happens to be the man Lucy once cheated on him with. He thus reopens the emotional scab that leads to the destruction of his marriage, which occurs in the dinner scene where his anger boils over. Yet that same dinner brings Jack and Connie even closer, despite the fact that the chops wind up inedible.
This is the sort of old-fashioned, slight little-guy-makes-good story that has some really charming moments but can often seem precious and contrived. Hoffman, who did the play onstage, certainly has the measure of the character’s sleepily affable persona and gets excellent performances from Ortiz and Rubin-Vega. Ryan starts out seeming excessively klutzy, but morphs into a more realistic, less stilted figure as the film proceeds, especially after a subway assault leaves her hospitalized, giving Jack a chance to show his caring side.
“Jack Goes Boating” is technically fairly bland, but the lack of glamour certainly fits the material. It’s a movie that neither sinks nor soars, but provides some modest pleasure along the way. Just not enough.