Anyone who's endured a knockdown-dragout fight with a loved one – especially one you still love – will recognize much of the behavior on display in 'Jack Goes Boating,' actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's directorial debut. Adapting Bob Glaudini's play from a script written by Glaudini himself, Hoffman dives headfirst into a painfully authentic world of disagreements, awkward exchanges, and flat-out fights, and creates a modest if remarkably successful portrait of three different relationships on three entirely different trajectories.
Bolstered by great performances from John Ortiz, Amy Ryan, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Hoffman himself, 'Jack Goes Boating' is precisely the kind of directorial debut one might hope to see from one of the premiere actors of his generation: it's the kind of film that you can't take your eyes off of, even though it never seems to call attention to itself.
Hoffman plays Jack, a simple man with a simple life who drives a limousine, spends his free time hanging out with his best friend Clyde (Ortiz), and sustains "good vibes" by repeatedly listening to The Melodians' "River of Babylon" through the headphones of his cassette walkman. After Clyde introduces Jack to Connie (Ryan), the coworker of his wife Lucy (Rubin-Vega), the two of them begin a tenuous courtship. But even as both Jack and Connie begin to enjoy the empowerment of meeting someone around whom each can feel open and honest, Clyde and Lucy's marital problems threaten to spill over into the fledgling couple's developing relationship.
As communication rapidly deteriorates between Lucy and Clyde, Jack finds himself challenged with the task of managing not only his own relationship, but his friend's, and he is eventually forced to confront his own hopes and fears as he attempts to determine whether their collapsing marriage is a unique case, some sort of cautionary tale, or an inescapable sign of things to come between himself and Connie.
There are few actors today possessed with the same sort of intelligence and consistent emotional intensity as Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I'm not sure if it's because of or in spite of those qualities that he seems so effectively to disappear in to a character like Jack. Unlike the self-indulgent sad-sacks of so many unconventional romantic movies, Jack functions almost solely on a conscious plane: when asked what he wants "to see" in a woman, he says it would be nice if she liked music and maintained a positive outlook on things. There's a genuine purity to the character that gives him humanity, and deeper substance, precisely because Jack doesn't seem aware of it himself; the wheels are turning in purely practical measures, and Hoffman leaves the meanings and metaphors to the audience's interpretation.
Further, it's this seeming simplicity that gives the entire film such authenticity. These are not deliberately contemplative people; they acknowledge the incongruity of what they want to feel and what they actually feel, but are hapless to redirect that energy in more constructive directions, or even deal with it directly. There almost a sort of bait-and-switch as the story becomes less about Jack and Connie and more about Clyde and Lucy, but not in a facetious or calculated way. Rather, it's not unlike the way an unhealthy relationship between two people you care about can eventually infect you and your relationships; Jack and Connie shuffle through one awkward encounter after another, but their interactions feel positively healthy in comparison to the overripe, poisonous exchanges between Lucy and Clyde. Amazingly, Hoffman keeps the reins tight enough over such conflicts and blowouts that they never feel like the stuff of movie storytelling, but the very real (and very raw) breakdown of the connection (and affection) of two people who once loved each other very, very much, and have sadly integrated a cycle of maliciousness, doubt and passive-aggressiveness into their normal routine.
The third relationship that becomes integral to the film is between Jack and Clyde, who are obviously longtime best friends, and who in many ways share a uniquely beautiful bond with one another. Theirs isn't the superficial connection of movie "bromances," but the real and meaningful friendship shared between two men who understand one another without needing the other to say what he wants or how he's feeling. At the same time, Clyde becomes the fulcrum for the majority of the film's conflict, and he ultimately damages their relationship as well, albeit less because of any direct betrayal than his uncontrollable, oppressive, and desperate need for disclosure. It's telling that he only says "I love you" when he's hurting and needs Jack's forgiveness, approval or validation.
Ortiz, a longtime friend of Hoffman's, knows Clyde as well as his director knows Jack, and his is probably the standout performance of the film. He's an actor I've thought was noteworthy since his supporting performance in 'Carlito's Way,' where he played Carlito's doomed nephew, but this is the kind of role he's deserved for years, and he makes the most of the opportunity. Meanwhile, Rubin-Vega fearlessly throws herself into the role of Lucy, afraid of neither the character's simmering sexuality or her easy cruelty. And Amy Ryan, and actress who continues to impress with one terrific turn after another, manages to elevate Connie from an adorable, accident-prone cliché into something that seems perfectly compatible (and completely three-dimensional) for Jack; Ryan gives the character's unexpected punchlines an unexpected charm, and even her oddest reactions a matter-of-factness that make them recognizable and relatable emotional payoffs rather than the precious little actorly flourishes they might have been in less capable hands.
As a director, Hoffman has a good sense of pacing, and for a film that could easily have lapsed into 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'-style study in excruciating awkwardness, he consistently manages to err on the right side of almost every pregnant pause, both in humorous and dramatic moments. It's a film that, as suggested above, most couples attending will recognize within it moments that, if they haven't experienced first hand, they've endured their own versions of, or worse yet, inflicted on someone close to them. But ultimately, 'Jack Goes Boating' is not a cynical or melancholy film, just one tethered to realism as it pursues (and perfectly captures) its romantic ideals. In other words, just like the understatement of Jack and Connie's emerging connection, 'Jack Goes Boating' is an understated success, because it reminds you why you love the one you're with - not only in spite of the way they might hurt you, but because of it.