It’s not hard to see what attracted Philip Seymour Hoffman to Bob Gluadini’s 2007 play, Jack Goes Boating, when casting about for suitable material with which to make his directorial debut. Typical of the dominant trend of American mainstream theater that apes the psychological realism of touchstones like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, Jack Goes Boating, in whose original production Hoffman starred, is built solidly in the mode of such American theatrical “classics” as The Night of the Iguana. Gualdini has the formula down pat: a few troubled characters endowed with a shallow and reductive psychological background, a set piece or two for the cast to achieve maximum emoting, and a lame symbol tying the whole thing together.
The material is thus both manageable for the first-time director and designed to offer the Oscar-winning actor and his co-stars a juicy showcase for their trademark art, though in the translation to the big screen it becomes a pretty dubious demonstration. Reprising his stage role as Jack, a sad-sack limo driver, Hoffman gets to both luxuriate in his comfort zone (plenty of awkward half-sputtered dialogue, punctuated by nervous glances to the side, and his trademark heavy breathing) and indulge in one great climactic burst of anger. But it’s in directing his ensemble that Hoffman really seeks to burnish his directorial reputation.
While Jack’s equally awkward love interest, Connie, a saleswoman who works for a shady mortuary owner and hides an obviously troubled past, is played by Amy Ryan with a fair amount of believable restraint, when she and Hoffman share the screen, their exchanges turn into a horribly mannered contest to see who can insert the most awkward pauses. Similarly, the film’s other couple, Jack’s best friend Clyde and his live-in girlfriend Lucy, are played by John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega, respectively, with a strong measure of credible confidence (making a nice contrast with the other more timid pair), but their underimagined story of marital infidelities and accusations seems designed principally to lead up to a final booze-, hash-, and coke-fueled showdown in which these actors are finally turned loose to “act.” (Which is to say they scream and cry a lot.)
It’s not easy to adapt a stage play to the screen and make it seem like something other than canned theater, a problem directors have dealt with throughout the history of cinema. (William Wyler’s decision to adapt so many forgettable plays is probably what makes his output, on the whole, so thoroughly average. Despite his always excellent cinematography, his poor choice of material and—in films like Detective Story and The Desperate Hours—the almost exclusive confinement to a single setting help mark the Little Foxes director as the equivalent American practitioner of the much deprecated French “tradition of quality.”)
Hoffman’s strategy is to vary his locations slightly, while working in such impressionistic touches as a silent underwater shot of himself in a public pool as Jack visualizes himself learning to swim, but none of these small gestures can overcome the fact that the film’s conversations often feel too much like characters reciting lines from a play. Part of the problem is that Hoffman hasn’t developed a sufficiently interesting visual style to stamp the film with his own signature, relying heavily on clumsily framed shot/reverse shot close-ups (as in an early limo-to-limo conversation in which he awkwardly places the heads of two interlocutors at opposite corners of the screen, one head out of focus at a time). Only in the final muted browns and greens illustrating the titular activity does Hoffman give us an image that actually seems designed to look like something, but given that that activity stands as the film’s (and play’s) final symbolic payoff, this scene serves principally to remind us of Jack Goes Boating‘s adherence to the standard model of American theater, a model that has not only proved surprisingly fallow when confined to the proscenium stage, but has more often than not proved a detriment to our national cinema when translated to the big screen.