Directorial debuts by actors are sometimes scene-chewing, ego-stroking exercises. Philip Seymour Hoffman's "Jack Goes Boating," so refreshingly bereft of those qualities, is more content with humility and authenticity.
The film opens with an overhead shot of Jack — overweight, unshaven and not appearing to possess anything like "gusto" — in bed. The threat of bedridden depression is never far from "Jack Goes Boating," but the film — and Jack — is propelled forward. Inertia gives way to self-improvement, love and, yes, reggae.
Quiet and stuttering, Jack is a limo driver with the goal of landing a job with the MTA. (One man's dream is another man's nightmare.) He also loves reggae; he listens to "Rivers of Babylon" constantly on headphones and in his car. The sunny song is a stark contrast to the New York winter of the film and Jack's less than jubilant life.
"Would you consider yourself a Rasta-man?" sarcastically asks his fellow driver and best friend, Clyde (John Oritz).
It turns out to be a reasonable question. Jack's blond knots may be a poor attempt at dreadlocks, but those around him gradually realize he has a way of inspiring good vibes.
Clyde, confident and sensitive at once, is married to Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who has built herself a tougher front. Years of marriage and infidelity have drained their relationship. They're coming apart at the seams from jealousy and distrust.
They set up Jack with a colleague of Lucy's, Connie (Amy Ryan), from the funeral home she works at. They assure him a dinner party of the four of them won't be awkward: "We'll just order something," they tell him over and over.
Against the odds, Jack and Connie hit it off. Further dates, though, bring more anxiety. When Connie suggests dinner, Jack devotes himself to weeks of cooking training. When she says they should go for a boat ride in the summer, he quickly sets about learning to swim.
Clyde, the kind of devoted friend anyone would want, gives Jack swimming lessons at the local YMCA. Marching along the pool, he cheers Jack on. Under water, his wide-eye, goggled face is pure hope. The film's best scenes are here; in chlorine-filled waters, Jack learns to fly.
But "Jack Goes Boating" — an ancestor of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" — is no simple love story. While Jack and Connie are building a new relationship, Lucy and Clyde are falling apart after years together. There's no judgment here: Love is hard and things can sour.
The film is based on the play by the same name by Bob Glaudini. Its Broadway run — which starred Hoffman, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega — was produced by LAByrinth Theater Company, for which Hoffman and Ortiz were artistic directors.
It comes as little surprise that Hoffman would know how to capture a good performance, and those of "Jack Goes Boating" are incredibly full. Ortiz and Rubin-Vega ("Rent"), both well-respected theater actors, are excellent. Ortiz, in particular, vacillates between hope and self-destruction with remarkable bipolar truthfulness.
Hoffman reveals Jack the sad sack to be an odd, inarticulate Buddha, willing to put in the work it takes for growth. Except for the climactic scene, his direction rarely feels stage-y.
"Jack Goes Boating" contains none of the easy, syncopated lilt of a reggae tune, but it moves to the awkward beat of life. Reespek, mon.