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Movie Review

Jack Goes Boating

Hoffman’s ‘Jack’ is subtly moving

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 24, 2010

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To appreciate “Jack Goes Boating,’’ you have to be a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the indie-rock band Grizzly Bear (whose songs are all over the soundtrack), or warmhearted, working-class dramas like the 1955 Oscar winner “Marty.’’ Any combination of the above will do, although it especially helps to love Hoffman, since this is the actor’s directorial debut and the movie’s uneven but gently observational tone seems very much in line with the man himself.

Hoffman plays the title character, a middle-age man-child who works as a driver for his uncle’s limousine service. Swollen and unkempt, Jack is one of those tender misfits who has never found his place in life. His prized possession is a cassette tape of the Melodians’ old reggae hit “By the Rivers of Babylon,’’ and its plaintive chorus — “How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?’’ — doubles as Jack’s lament. How can a man find meaning in a world he watches from the outside?

Jack’s best friends — his only friends — are a voluble fellow driver named Clyde (John Ortiz) and Clyde’s wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), easygoing working-class potheads who set him up on a blind date with the equally damaged Connie (Amy Ryan of “Gone Baby Gone’’). The dramatic geometry of “Jack Goes Boating’’ is simple to a fault: Jack and Connie move shyly toward each other while Clyde and Lucy drift noisily apart, prompted by her past infidelities and his inability to let them go. The film’s based on a play by Bob Glaudini — Hoffman originated the role on stage — and while the writer has opened the action up to the New York winter, the film is interior, dialogue-driven, occasionally too neat.

Still, this is one of those rare movies that genuinely likes its characters and wishes them the best; as agonizing as it can be to watch Jack fumble toward human connection, Hoffman knows the fumbling’s the point. As a director, he’s tentative but determined, occasionally dipping into crystalline moments of Manhattan magical realism. Jack spends much of the movie learning to swim at the local Y, and the shimmery pool sequences liberate character and director alike.

Mostly, though, “Jack Goes Boating’’ hunkers down and watches its four characters try to reach each other through the emotional walls they’ve built for themselves. Not surprisingly, this is an actors’ movie full of actors’ moments, Hoffman bringing the camera up close to the faces and waiting for human truths to emerge. Sometimes they do; just as often the screen is filled with empathetic tics. Generosity of spirit may not be enough to base an entire movie on, but it does provide “Jack Goes Boating’’ with lovely grace notes, and as the first step toward a directorial career it’s tantalizing. More, please.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/tyburr.

JACK GOES BOATING Directed by: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Written by: Bob Glaudini, based on his play

Starring: Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega

At: Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 89 minutes

Rated: R (language, drug use, some sexual situations)

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