Watching films at the Wilma Theatre is always something of an adventure. Obviously you know what you're getting in terms of location and ambience, and if you're looking for a very personal viewing experience, there's always about a 10 percent chance that you'll be the only one in the audience, even if you're watching on the larger of the two screens. But with the positives come a number of detriments, not the least of which is the outdated sound system. Muffled is a nice way of putting it. Not a movie goes by where at some point I don't wonder in annoyance what someone just said. In addition, the possibility of the movie going out or the reel needing changing is always a very real one, especially when watching in the small theater.
I bring this up in relation to Jack Goes Boating because the reel change intermission that occurred in the small theater of the Wilma actually doubled as this film's major shift in tone. One moment I was watching a lighthearted dark comedy about two abnormally normal couples; the next moment, well, it was something far more uncomfortable. That's the intriguing dichotomy of Jack Goes Boating. It's not an uplifting saga of love overcoming great odds. It's not a soul-searching tragedy. It's both.
At its heart is Jack (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a passive, overweight 40-something limousine driver with tentative dreadlocks reflecting his abiding appreciation of reggae music. Reticent but armed with a Walkman, he approaches life as unsurely as he does his dreadlocks. In an early scene, an attractive Italian brunette in the back of his limousine asks him if he's married. As he looks both skeptically and hopefully back into the rearview mirror, she apologizes quickly for working on her English.
Clyde (John Ortiz), Jack's best friend and fellow limousine driver, is physically what Jack is not—conventionally handsome, with a dark moustache and movie star eyes. Clyde and his porn-star-good-looks wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a funeral director secretary, are interested in helping Jack find love despite the increasing evidence of their own marital failings. And so Jack is set up with Connie (Amy Ryan), a frail co-worker of Lucy's charged with doing hard sales to potential funeral home clients. At the first dinner party, Connie describes in great physical detail the throes of her own grandfather's death. At the end of the night, Jack walks Connie home in the snow and hopelessly romanticizes with her about boating in the summer, though he doesn't know how to swim.
There are more than a few uncomfortable scenes, where both couples are present and their relationships lay naked and vulnerable in plain juxtaposition. They watch each other with that uncomfortable knowledge, à la Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. A few drug-riddled scenes only enhance the anxiety and inability of the audience to predict what the characters will do, and what they will do to one another. They are cleverly drawn scenes, and ones that make the audience as uneasy as anyone on screen.
Although the film may be called Jack Goes Boating, the camera lingers as much on Lucy and Clyde's disintegrating relationship as Jack and Connie's budding one. The complexity of the resentment and attachment between Lucy and Clyde is all the more striking and unpleasant for its contrast to the innocent beginnings of Connie and Jack. Ruben-Vega is an appropriately frightening Martha, and Ryan pulls off a wan and easily influenced Connie.
Thankfully, but not a little eerily, the discomfiting bouts of anger in Clyde's relationship are tempered by the childlike trust between Jack and Clyde, as Clyde teaches Jack how to swim. Some of the best moments in the film are shot in the thick silence and toothpaste blue light beneath the surface of the community pool, as the two middle-aged men blow bubbles out through their noses, looking at one another in too-small bathing suits and goggles, Clyde smiling to encourage Jack to keep his eyes open.
Applying the envisioning technique that Clyde taught him at the pool, Jack dreams his way through a few scenes, closing his eyes and moving his hands as he cooks a meal for Connie, swims laps smoothly and boats on the pond Connie dreams of boating on.
What sweetness or hope exists in the film is drawn not only from Jack and Connie's awkward and earnest attempts to get to know one another, but also from Clyde's heartbreakingly enthusiastic devotion to help Jack win over Connie, despite his own sadness. Phillip Seymour Hoffman delivers a solid film in his directorial debut, and his acting is, as always, stellar. I just wish he would lose a little weight. I am worried about his health.
Jack Goes Boating continues at the Wilma Theatre.