Reality bites. On one end of the spectrum of love stories, you’ve got your impossibly beautiful creatures, complications based on easily resolvable misunderstandings, and the requisite Big Gestures. On the other end are real people! While their onscreen images can be inspiring and generate conversation, their lives can also be awkward and harbor resentments, their lives slow-moving and dull.
Pseudo-reality on screen is worse. And this is mostly what you get in Jack Goes Boating, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s adaptation of Robert Glaudini’s play. It may be a promising directorial debut, but it also offers characters so “real” you can feel the writer sketching in their quirks. Or lack thereof: Jack (Hoffman) is a dreadlocked New York limo driver who lives in his uncle’s basement, listens to reggae for its “positive vibes,” and dreams of working for the MTA. He’s never been in a long-term relationship, so his friend and fellow chauffeur, Clyde (John Ortiz), sets him up with Connie (Amy Ryan), a meek and generally damaged woman who works in the sales department of a mortuary with his wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega).
On their first date, a double at Clyde and Lucy’s apartment, Connie talks about her father lapsing into a coma as a medic hits on her. Just when Jack and Clyde think that uncomfortable story is over, she adds that her father survived, but died shortly thereafter in a freak accident. Jack says, “Oh, God” a lot. He walks her to a cab in the wind and snow, both of them shielded in big coats, hats, and scarves. (Metaphor alert!) When, some days later, Connie is attacked on the subway—her blood is real, her story of sexual assault questionable—Jack visits her in the hospital and brings her a stuffed animal. She’s touched, he’s clumsy, and they’re pretty much made for each other.
It helps that, by now, Connie has also leaked enough backstory that Jack knows how to impress her: she wants to go for a boat ride, and no one’s ever cooked for her. So he starts taking swimming and cooking lessons, the latter in preparation for a “feast.” The boating will be in summer, the meal, just a month away.
If it sounds like a lot of effort to go through to win over someone with obvious intimacy issues (at this point, Jack and Connie have barely pecked), it is. While Ryan’s performance makes Connie, at least, quietly intriguing enigma, alternately complex and baffling, manifestly nice. Jack’s a nice guy, too, with low-key charm and an obvious desire to improve himself, even if it takes someone else to make him do it. But as they dance around each other for weeks—nearly always in those hats and coats—what exactly attracts each to the other is a question mark. Loneliness, you say? Perhaps, though Connie eventually confesses, “I really like you” and tells Jack he’s sexy. You’ll ask “Why?” for the former and “Seriously?!” for the latter: Hoffman, with those dreads and a triple beer gut, looks more slovenly than ever. (He originated the role on stage.)
While the film’s main couple is a head-scratching snooze, Clyde and Lucy eventually provide sparks—the furious kind generated by a couple who have compromised and looked the other way on their issues for a bit too long. Their cool, day-to-day politeness that inevitably blows up is unquestionably realistic. But that bitterness doesn’t exactly make for pleasurable moviegoing, particularly when it explodes on the tail end of a whole lot of nothing. More interesting, or at least noteworthy, are both couples’ changing life statuses. For once, the brown-skinned people are successful and at least have their professional lives together, while the lily-whites fumble around as they try to readjust their failed paths.
Glaudini adapted his own play, which ensures that the dialogue is sharp and often wonderfully rhythmic. What may have been a taut, tension- and occasionally joy-filled experience onstage, however, translates to a somewhat irritating shrug on the big screen. Hoffman’s direction veers from effectively pedestrian to affected, its worst moments filled with plaintive piano and fantasy sequences of Jack visualizing his swimming and cooking moves, as Clyde suggests he do. Every time Jack’s eyes close, yours may be tempted to, too.