One could easily mistake Jack Goes Boating, Philip Seymour Hoffman's directorial debut, as being just another in a long long (long) line of typical indie projects - a by-the-book user's manual on how to make an independent movie if you will (my wife made that exact analogy upon seeing the film and I gratefully sample her complaint for my review). I suppose to a point, one's mistaken identity would be quite accurate, but at the same time, it would be too easy to brush off such a film as merely that and nothing else. Perhaps it does have that indie typicality that unfortunately pervades most of modern American independent cinema lo these past two decades - a habit that makes modern indie cinema seem just as assembly-line as Hollywood, only with a tenth (or even twentieth) of the budget - but Hoffman's film does serve up more than mere just desserts.
An exercise in acting chops, Jack Goes Boating stars first-time director Hoffman as the titular would be boater, and all-around lonely soul and typical fucked-up indie movie character, in a role he created on the stage of the LAByrinth Theater in New York. Hoffman brings along fellow LAByrinth members John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega to reprise their roles as Jack's ready-to-explode married (and pretty much only) friends, and Amy Ryan to play the possible lead love interest, and fellow typical fucked-up indie movie character (I can only assume the replacement of this one character from the stage version is due to producer peer pressure to have a second "name" in the cast). Hoffman creates in his film (much like other actor-turned-directors) a stage free of outside influences (read: directorial flourish) for his troupe to perform upon. It is upon this stage, and amongst these four actors/characters, that Jack Goes Boating, despite its cookie-cutter outside, begins to shine from its stage-drawn insides.
Taking one of those by-the-book indie movie user's manual stories of a schlubby lonely guy with a stockpile of issues who gets fixed up by his friends, with an equally lonely (though not quite as schlubby) girl with just as many issues (actually probably a lot more it seems as the film goes on) and their inevitable understanding of life and of each other. The only difference here than in many of these kind of films, is the acting of the four principals. All four are brilliant in their portrayals of these mostly unlikable characters (Hoffman's Jack is really the only one of the four that comes off as a relatively decent human being). Well, perhaps it is not entirely the actors doing, for the writing, even though mired in cliche, is rich with the kind of emotionality ripe for acting interpretation.
The screenplay is written by fellow LAByrinthian Robert Glaudini (adapting his own play) and this actor-turned-playwright knows how to give his actors the breathing room to perform. The penultimate climax of the film, which takes place during a disastrous dinner party where everything gets fucked-up, is also the epicenter of these four actor's bravura group breakdown that the whole film has been leading up to. An explosion of pent-up emotion that showcases the power of these actors. Perhaps not the best movie out there, what Jack Goes Boating lacks in originality and directorial prowess (though Hoffman does elicit a certain moodiness necessary to the film), it makes up for with staggering acting and thespianic chutzpah. LAByrinth founding member John Ortiz, as Jack's best friend, gives a performance worthy of much more than what this film will receive in accolades. Yet this is surely Hoffman's film, and the fact that it probably plays better on stage than on film aside, as an exercise worthy of Stanislavski himself, he succeeds exactly where he needs to. [10/18/10]