Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 29 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star ratings (1-5): 4
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Jack Goes Boating marks actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s debut as a film director. Based on Bob Glaudini’s Off-Broadway play in which he also starred in, along with co-stars John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega, this is a little film about little people with little dreams. (At first it reminded me “a little” of the 1950s classic Marty.) I write “little” as in a scale of big to little in those films in which the hero saves the world or strives for great success (in sports, show business or Wall Street). Little does not mean that Jack’s dream to go to work for MTA (Manhattan Transit Authority) is not important to him. The steady salary, job security and extra benefits no doubt are worth the ordeal of taking the application test, and there are also the regular hours. At his current job of driving a limousine for the company owned by his uncle he is liable to be called in at all hours of the day, subject to the whims of their wealthy clients.
Jack works and socializes with fellow driver Clyde (John Ortiz). Indeed the single Jack has no other friends but Clyde and his wife Lucy (Rubin-Vega), so he frequently hangs out at their small apartment. Clyde, like Jack, is in his forties with no accomplishments to boast about, though he is currently taking a college course for adults (and gazing a little too much at the female professor who has praised one of his papers). It is Lucy who fixes Jack up with a supper date at their apartment with Connie (Amy Ryan), a co-worker at the funeral parlor where they both are clerks and telephone solicitors.
Connie, like Jack, is single and lacks the social skills needed to be a part of the dating scene. The part of her job that she struggles with is making phone calls to prospective clients for “Dr. Bob,” as the owner has dubbed himself. Lucy has been trying to encourage and coach her on how to land a client. Thus Connie is as shy and hesitant as Jack when the two meet. There are many pauses in their conversation, each seeming anxious that they might say the wrong thing and turn off the other. After supper Jack walks Connie to the taxi pick-up, Connie having turned down his offer to drive her home. Both want to see each other again but are uncertain about what to say. When Connie says that she would like to go boating, Jack readily agrees. However, it is snowing now, so it will have to wait until spring. Connie’s quick kiss on Jack’s cheek as she enters the cab indicates that they should not wait until then to get together again. Their next meeting will be soon, but not as either intended.
At work Connie is actually landing a client when suddenly blood pours forth from her nose, dripping down onto her desk. Alarmed, Lucy starts to take the phone, but Connie, sensing that she is about to close her first deal, waves her off. By the time Connie finishes Lucy has called 911 for her friend. Jack joins the married pair at the hospital, stopping at the gift shop to buy Connie a stuffed koala bear. He waits while the pair goes in first to see the patient, and then when they leave, he, after a long pause to gather up his nerves, enters her room. She is pleased to see him. During their conversation he tells her that he will cook a meal for her. Moved by the offer, Connie replies, “No one has ever done that for me.”
Jack now has two more goals. Earlier he had told Clyde about the boating date and that he did not know how to swim. His friend promised to teach him, and so there begins a series of sequences at a Harlem swimming pool, the beginning of which is Clyde’s patient encouragement of his friend to overcome his fear of water by submerging their heads and blowing bubbles. Now he admits that he knows nothing about cooking, to which Clyde replies that he knows the pastry chef at the Waldorf whom he can persuade to teach him. The offer is a bit bizarre in that earlier Clyde had poured his heart out to Jack, revealing that several years earlier Lucy had been unfaithful to him, one of her lovers being that very same chef. Nonetheless, Clyde arranges for a series of lessons, and we see a number of brief scenes of the chef teaching the rudiments of food preparation.
The film has moved at almost a snail’s pace up to this point, underscoring the slow, hesitant bonding of the socially impaired man and woman. Connie halts their attempt at lovemaking because of her shyness, though she wants Jack to touch her. The dinner scene, however, moves far more quickly, even explosively, fueled by the long pent up feelings of resentment nurtured by both Clyde and Lucy toward each other—hers because of his lack of accomplishing anything of significance, and his due to her betrayals. Thus as the arc of Jack and Connie’s relationship rises, that of the husband and wife’s plunges downward. The last scene is a heartbreaker.
The use of songs to underscore scenes is very skillful, with that of The Melodians’ “The Rivers of Babylon” being especially noteworthy. This seems to be one of Jack’s favorite songs, so we hear it more than once. The song is an interesting combination of the opening verses of Psalm 137 with that of Psalm 19:14. Although not physically in exile, Jack is indeed one of society’s outsiders, making the song an appropriate commentary on his status and feelings—even the prayer from Psalm 19 expresses his desire for acceptance—acceptance at the MTA and above all, by his new-found lover.
Reprinted from the Nov/Dec. 2010 issue if Visual Parables. There are 7 discussion questions in the issue.