Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut, an adaptation of a stage play he starred on Off-Broadway, is a remarkable and dexterous handling of the material for a first film. There’s nothing about the film that seems in the least amateurish. That’s probably not surprising as far as the acting goes, but it’s also true of the visual style of the film. Though Hoffman has gone on record to say that he wishes he’d spent more time considering the visuals, the film is still very visual and there’s nothing about the cinematography that seems without purpose. In fact, the cinematography is one of the surprises of the film, and really speaks to Hoffman’s future as a film director should he choose to pursue it. That’s not to say the look of the film takes precedence over the performances, which might have happened had he spent the amount of time on it he claims he wished he had. After all, this still has its roots as a dialogue-heavy play, and Hoffman strikes a fairly perfect balance.
The story is a simple one; limo driver Jack, played by Hoffman, is set up on a blind date with Connie, who works with his best friend’s wife. Jack and Connie struggle to overcome their personal insecurities to forge a relationship together. Jack places a very intense focus on self-betterment. Whether he’s trying to learn to swim so he can take Connie boating come summer, or learning to cook because no one’s ever cooked for her before and he’s promised to make her a meal at a dinner party, the effort he puts into them is remarkable and really makes you root for him. This is the type of man willing to push a very heavy Sisyphusian rock uphill every step of the way, no matter how hard it looks or how long it takes. But within that sort of work ethic and the growth it leads to, he finds a very beautiful sort of spirituality. Since he can’t always be at the pool or practicing making the dishes he’s selected in his friends’ kitchen, he’s constantly visualizing the learning processes as he walks around town, and the visual overlap Hoffman uses to portray Jack’s concentration and focus is touching and evocative.
Although Jack and Connie are both essentially wounded wallflowers, they each have a strong and winning desire to break out of their ruts and find something more in life. One can only assume Connie has had some sort of sexual abuse in her past the way she continues to attract unwanted advances and assaults. But Jack is never less than exceedingly kind and and tentatively tender with her. The counterpoint of this developing romance are the marital problems we slowly find his friends Clyde and Lucy are enduring. Much like Jack, who keeps his fears at bay with a constant soundtrack of positive reggae on his walkman, Clyde is the eternal optimist, always encouraging sad sack Jack with unwavering friendship and love. At least on the surface. Underneath it, Clyde is as lonely and hurt as Jack, trying to make sense of his wife’s marital infidelities. But much as we are slowly won over by Jack and Connie the longer we watch them, until we’re actively rooting for them, we start to slowly dread where Clyde and Lucy are heading.
Part of the reason is their completely unconscious behavior towards each other, part of it is their increasing inability to functionally communicate, and part of it are their growing dependencies on liquor, pot, and in a very uncomfortable sequence, the coke that Clyde buys on a whim right before the climactic dinner party. Watching Clyde and Lucy unravel is truly painful to watch, and provides a counterpoint to the hard-fought relationship slowly evolving between Jack and Connie. One relationship illustrates the effort and perseverance it takes to truly build something, the willingness to walk through a forest of uncertainty and sit with uncomfortable discoveries; the other details how turning a blind eye to each other or being unwilling to face the truth, which can seem innocent enough as a temporary means of avoiding making something worse, is the beginning of the end and leads down a road to complete toxicity and destruction.
The story here is a minor one. Jack Goes Boating isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before, and the characters of Jack and Connie are unassuming enough that they’re likely not going to ignite passionate fires in viewers. But one of the thing the film gets so right is its natural realism. We’re privy to what good hearts these people have; most of them are truly selfless people who are willing to go the distance for a friend, which is partly what makes Clyde and Lucy’s deteriorating relationship all the more painful. Clyde has obviously made some bad, self-destructive choices, but he’s not a bad person, and he’d give anything to find some way to save his relationship. All of the characters are also somewhat unattractive in a way that’s true to reality; not to the extreme that they seemed to have stepped out of a Todd Solondz film but simply as any normal, average, workaday person struggles with mediocrity and has to fight small, personal battles and they may seem ready-made as the star of a cinema marquee. This isn’t a slick Hollywood film with archetypes of perfection, but the kind of people who might ring you up at the drugstore checkout when you buy toothpaste, someone who is simply trying to carve out a small amount of happiness for himself in the world. This not only carries through in the performances, but is a part of the script. Often times a scene begins at the tail end. Writer Bob Glaudini doesn’t feel the need to justify how or why a scene began; he simply wants to pick up the scene once all of the dramatic elements are already present and everything is firing on all cylinders. Audiences may find this a bit disconcerting at first, constantly feeling like they missed something and walked in during the middle of a scene, but it’s refreshingly natural and allows us to experience a much more personal side to the characters.
In that sense, Hoffman has pulled off quite a balancing act. While part of the film is difficult to watch, it also has a rare and genuine beauty to it. And while it may not be creating characters or revealing an emotional struggle that’s something we’ve never seen before, the attention to detail and the personal realism has a rare honesty to it. Glaudini and Hoffman never plumb the depths of the characters to such a degree as to exploit them or their problems, so the film is kept from being a deep probe into their inner psyches. Instead we’re left to watch all of their faults play out across their surfaces, and the very real-feeling damages they can inflict on each other, or conversely, the hope they might be able to inspire in each other. This is no easy feat, and the skill with which it’s achieved across every level of the production is impressive.