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Reality bites. On one end of love-story spectrum, 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! And real people are awkward and harbor resentments; life can be slow-moving and dull. And though on-screen believability is to be celebrated, sometimes you go to the movies wanting a ridiculous I-love-you! dash to the airport instead of a relentless reflection of your own boring or bile-filled existence.
Pseudo-reality is worse. And this is mostly what you get in Jack Goes Boating, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s adaptation of a Robert Glaudini play that may be a promising directorial debut but 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 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 generally damaged woman who works in the sales department of a mortuary with Clyde’s wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega).
On their first date, a double at Clyde and Lucy’s apartment, Connie talks about her father dying and a medic hitting on her; 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 Connie is attacked—her blood is real, her story of sexual assault questionable—Jack visits her in the hospital. During this time she leaks enough information for Jack to know 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”…that he schedules for 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, they’ve barely pecked), it is—though Ryan’s Connie, at least, is quietly intriguing and a nice person. Jack’s a nice guy, too, with low-key charm and an obvious desire to improve himself, even if it takes someone else to finally 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 think “Why?” to the former and “Seriously?!” to the latter: Hoffman, with those dreads and a triple beer gut, looks more slovenly than ever. (Hoffman originated the role on stage.)
While the film’s main couple is a head-scratching snooze, however, Clyde and Lucy eventually offer sparks, albeit the hate-fueled kind of a compromising couple who have 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; it’s just that bitterness doesn’t exactly make for pleasurable movie-going, particularly when it explodes on the tail-end of a whole lot of nothing.
Glaudini adapted his own play, which at least ensures that the dialogue is sharp and often wonderfully rhythmic. Hoffman’s direction, meanwhile, veers from effectively pedestrian to affected, its worst moments filled with plaintive piano and fantasy sequences of Jack visualizing his swimming and cooking moves. Every time Jack’s eyes close, yours may be tempted to, too.