“Jack Goes Boating” sets sail

By Kevin Mele

Courtesy of Lab Theater
In his directorial debut “Jack Goes Boating,” Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Jack, a lonely man living in Manhattan and working as a limo driver. The opening shot holds stock-still on Jack’s lackluster mug, his eyes staring lifelessly out of his skull as he lies in bed.

This may remind Seymour Hoffman fans of the opening scene of “Synecdoche, New York”, a film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman in which Hoffman stars, also as a depressed loner type. In Kaufman’s film, though, he has the excuse of being an agonized artist, whereas in “Jack Goes Boating,” there’s no reason for Jack’s life being so miserable. It just is.

Jack goes boating – and not much else. But this shortage of activity doesn’t detract from the film. If anything, the film’s narrow scope actually works to its advantage, yielding a kind of dense, truthful character study.

As the misery mounts, the film begins to make you laugh. It’s the dead of winter and Jack’s day-in and day-out existence is so stultified that it makes you want to cry. At this point, his friend Clyde offers to set him up with an “assistant embalmer,” a friend of his wife’s. For Jack, this is adding insult to injury, as he winces, shakes his head and gasps in disgust. His misery, broaching the absurd, becomes funny.

Despite Jack’s initial reservations, it turns out that Connie, who really only answers telephones in an office that offers mortuary services and has no hand in the actual embalming, is probably the best thing that ever happened to him. On their first date, Connie goes off on this odd monologue about the drawn-out and freakish death of her father and as it grows worse and worse, the listening Jack knows no other way to respond than to keep issuing a disgusted “God,” over and over again-to the point of absurdity. It’s strange to laugh when the characters on screen remain so serious. But the theme of death is just too persistent in this film for the viewer to do anything but laugh at it.

But it’s not all funny. Jack and Connie form a relationship that saves them both. The small things that connect them manage to lift them out of death and despair. For instance, on one of their walks, with snowflakes falling all around, Connie happens to express a feeling of nostalgia for boating in the summer. This softly-spoken reminiscence, whimsically entertained by Connie, does something to Jack. He begins to try to make it happen. Only, first, he has to learn how to swim. Later, Jack learns that Connie has never had anyone cook for her. Something begins in him again. We slowly see the emptiness in Jack’s demeanor subside as he sets to work learning how to cook and swim.

The swimming pool and the hot plate suddenly become endowed with new significance. However trivial they may seem as objects, they are now places of work and places of life. He practices and prepares. It’s a huge change from the nothingness of that gray visage at the beginning of the film, with Jack just lying in bed with nothing to do. It was fascinating to watch how one man, who had nothing, began to have everything and all it took was someone else.

The film takes you from a profound sadness at the beginning to a taste of happiness at the end, with Jack and Connie boating on the lake in the summer, their relationship just beginning. The process of getting there is a pleasure to watch and the humor that manages to tinge both the sad moments and the happy moments is really remarkable. It’s a film worth seeing, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of Seymour Hoffman.

Kevin Mele can be reached at [email protected]