Movie review: ‘Jack Goes Boating’

By Hollywood’s staunchly risk-averse standards, the film adaptation of Bob Glaudini’s 2007 stage play “Jack Goes Boating” is an exceedingly brave venture. It’s an intimate, slice-of-life story in which things move deliberately, character goals are modest, and emotions — both of the internal and external kind — take center stage. The movie, adapted by Glaudini and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in his feature directing debut, is a vanishing — one could say vanished — breed, harking back to such small, sensitive dramas as Paddy Chayefsky’s 1950s classic “Marty,” to which “Jack” owes a distinct shout-out.

And therein lies the good news-bad news about “Jack Goes Boating,” which follows the slow-cooking romance that occurs between lumpy limo driver Jack (Hoffman) and timid funeral home worker Connie (Amy Ryan) while the married friends who introduced them, Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), are coming apart. Although it’s refreshing to see a movie not laser-focused on instant gratification, über-hip attitudes or characters created to satisfy cinematic safety standards, Glaudini and Hoffman (who starred in the original off-Broadway production, as did Ortiz and Rubin-Vega) honor the piece’s theatrical roots a bit too slavishly for its own good.

Despite attempts to physically “open up” the play, the often halting, darkly off-kilter dialogue remains stage-bound, offering lots of chewable moments for the excellent actors but turning self-conscious and occasionally tiresome when consigned to film. Hoffman’s passion for the project is clear, but the tricky transfer may have required another hand beyond the play’s inner circle to improve the picture’s visual and verbal pacing and better flesh out the back-stories of the characters.

Still, the acting’s the thing here, and director Hoffman has no qualms getting right in his performers’ faces and letting them have at it. Whether capturing his own quirky character’s fears, frustrations or hard-won joys; Connie’s careful moves out of her shell; the warm beats of Jack and Clyde’s friendship; or Clyde and Lucy’s passive-aggressive dance of disconnection (especially during the third act’s explosive dinner party), Hoffman’s fearless camera rarely blinks, even if the film doesn’t always probe as deeply as its frequent close-ups might imply.

In the end, “Jack Goes Boating,” so-named for the summer boat ride Jack promises Connie at their courtship’s winter start, is best appreciated for its sweet eccentricities (beginning with reggae lover Jack’s would-be dreadlocks), optimistic outlook and authentic New York vibe, as much as for its commitment to being exactly what it is: an affectionate homage to working-class underdogs trying to carve out their own little corners of happiness.