Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Jack Goes Boating (Big Beach Films, Cooper’s Town Productions, Labyrinth Theater Company, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, last night’s movie at the San Diego Public Library was one of those films that promised a far more interesting entertainment than it delivered! The film was called Jack Goes Boating, and it was one of those excessively annoying films that you really want to like. It was a personal project of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who not only starred in it but also directed and based it on a play by Robert Glaudini (who also wrote the script) in which he had also acted on stage. It’s one of those movies that attempts to achieve a deep, poignant portrayal of human relationships but ends up traveling down the yellow brick road of time-honored movie clichés and taking us nowhere we haven’t been taken before by far more assured filmmakers.

Hoffman plays Jack, a New York limousine driver whose best friend is a far hotter-looking fellow driver named Clyde (John Ortiz). Clyde has a relationship going with an equally sexy woman named Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who works at a receptionist for a funeral home owner who does an excessively tasteless commercial on the Internet. For whatever reason (probably nothing more than Glaudini’s authorial fiat) Jack has formed a crush on one of Lucy’s co-workers, Connie (Amy Ryan), a rather dull, death-obsessed woman who turns up with a major bruise under her eye and in the next scene is in the hospital with a breathing tube under her nose — I was beginning to wonder if Glaudini was going to have her diagnosed with cancer or something equally terminal and the movie’s plot was going to be a race against time for Jack to seduce her before she croaks.

Fortunately, Glaudini didn’t decide to make his story that manipulative a tear-jerker. Instead, he built his plot around Connie’s off-handed remark to Jack that she’d like him to take her boating — and when he points out that this is New York in January and therefore that’s a singularly unappealing idea for a date, she says that’s all right, they can do it in June. This gives Jack five months to learn to swim (he decides, reasonably, that if he’s going to take a girl out in a rowboat on the water he’d better be able to swim in case the boat turns over), and he also decides to invite Connie over for dinner even though he doesn’t know how to cook. So he takes lessons in both skills, in swimming at an indoor pool with Clyde, whose hunky good looks and very impressive basket, frequently flashed on the screen by director Hoffman (thank you — whatever his personal sexual orientation, it seems he learned something from playing Truman Capote on how to appeal to a Gay audience!), only makes Hoffman’s bloated, hairless physique look that much more unattractive by comparison and makes one wonder why anyone of whatever gender or orientation would find him appealing. (For some quirky Gay reason of my own, I find large men sexually appealing only if they’ve got body hair — which Hoffman doesn’t.)

The film almost never gets out of Jack’s apartment (thereby betraying its stage-play origins big-time) and he, Connie, Clyde and Lucy seem to spend almost all of their off-work time together — one wonders, “Don’t these people ever do anything else?” — which gives Jack’s interest in Connie a weird, almost incestuous quality that only adds to the overall sense of kinkiness when, on one of the rare times when Clyde and Lucy aren’t there and Our Hero actually gets some one-on-one time with the woman he’s trying to make his girlfriend, they actually make it to bed together but Connie tells Jack she only wants him to finger her to orgasm because she’s not ready for anything involving a penis, and one gets the distinct impression that when it comes to the actual down-’n’-dirty they’re both virgins. This film reaches its climax, such as it is, on the night of Jack’s big dinner party — to which, natch, he’s invited Clyde and Lucy (once again, why?) — and Lucy brings an elaborate hookah and some black hash on which all four principals get totally stoned until, just when we’re thinking, “Oh, no, Jack’s going to get so stoned he’s going to forget all about the dinner he’s making and everything will burn,” the smoke alarm goes off in Jack’s apartment and we realize that he’s forgot all about the dinner he was making and everything has burned.

And, out of all the possible reactions these people could have to this crisis, instead of doing the sensible thing and calling a take-out service to have something delivered, they run around the apartment smashing things, including the plates they were cooking the dinner in as well as the offending smoke alarm (a scene oddly reminiscent of the great gag in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup in which Chico and Harpo, having broken into the presidential palace of Freedonia to steal the secret war code and plans, turn on a radio which obstinately refuses to silence itself even after the two have beaten it to smithereens, though needless to say done far less effectively here), and between the wanton destruction and Clyde’s decision to push the door in the face of Cannoli (Salvatore Inzerillo) when he shows up, as previously arranged, to join them for dessert, the film ends with Clyde and Lucy having an acrimonious break-up while Jack and Connie finally do get together and stay together long enough to have that boating date in June, with which the film mercifully ends.

There’s nothing really wrong with Jack Goes Boating except that we don’t really like any of these people (I know it’s a convention in this sort of film to treat the second leads as miserable snots badly in need of comeuppance, but this film goes too far in that regard and makes Clyde so actively unlikable that through much of the second half you want to walk into the screen and strangle him), and it occurred to me afterwards that this is really an uncredited remake of Marty, with the homely guy and the homely gal getting together for a relationship that seems to be based more on mutual depression than anything else. There’s a lot to be said for Jack Goes Boating, including some genuinely funny scenes (I was expecting it to be more of a comedy than it was, and no doubt would have liked it better if they’d abandoned the strained seriousness and gone all out for gags) and a quite artful use of music, notably the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” from the soundtrack of The Harder They Come, and its basis in the Biblical lament of the Israelites trapped in Mesopotamia under Nebuchadnezzar (indeed, the lyrics are so close to the Biblical text Charles resented that 20th century songwriters Brent Dowe and James A. McNaughton were given sole credit for the song in the final roll!) is obviously supposed to have some relevance to the trials of Jack with the girl he’s trying to win, or at least the overall status of his life (at the end he’s shown passing the exam to get hired by New York’s public transit system as a bus driver, and we’re obviously supposed to read this as a dramatic step up in his career!) and Mel Tormé’s zippy uptempo cover of Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King and I (you’d never know from his version that the original was a waltz ballad in which the heroine, a widow, lamented the death of her husband and hoped the “young lovers” she saw necking in the moonlight would have better luck in their relationships than she had).

It’s an O.K. movie that had every right to be a minor comic gem — indeed, throughout that long scene with the hookah and the desperate cook losing control of his dinner to his intoxication, I couldn’t help but think how much funnier Laurel and Hardy could have made this basic situation (of course in the 1930’s it would have been a bottle of booze instead of a hallucinogen!), especially since even the hackiest of Hal Roach’s directors would have known to go for suspense instead of surprise and cut back and forth between the celebrants in the living room and the slowly burning food in the kitchen, and somehow they would have pulled off the slapstick climax of the scene so that it looked hilarious instead of just stupid.