Sports experts often point out that the greatest players (think Michael Jordan) usually don't make for good coaches, because their natural talent made everything so easy for them that it was hard to teach to others. A similar problem's at work here in Phillip Seymour Hoffman's indulgent but well-meaning directorial debut; Hoffman is so effortless and uncanny as an actor that he fails to recognize how hard directing really is.
The result is an overly talky, claustrophobically indulgent display of acting workshop masturbation, made watchable because most actors here are incredibly easy to watch.
The plot is indie-drama boilerplate; a sad, cut-off fortysomething loser learns to appreciate the world again through the love of an equally quirky woman. Hoffman plays the title schmuck, a painfully shy New York limo driver with a bulky body but a kind soul, who feels trapped inside his own head. He's so bottled-up and closed-off that his only hint of a personality — silly, half-hearted dreads and a passion for reggae — comes off as a jarring gimmick. Jack has one true friend, his fellow driver Clyde (John Ortiz), who coddles the big oaf, with the help of his patient wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin Vega). In an effort to jump-start his stalled life, Lucy arranges a date between Jack and her timid co-worker Connie, played by Hollywood's idea of a frump, Amy Ryan. These two bruised souls find a sort of comfort in each other, and Jack begins a regimen of swimming lessons and cooking classes, well in advance of their big Central Park Lagoon boat ride and picnic date. While the two oddball introverts are inching toward each other, the established couple is falling apart, which all culminates in a disastrous dinner party meltdown.
The predictable tale unfolds at such a ponderous, self-conscious pace that there's plenty of time to round out everyone's personalities with tacked-on quirks and showy monologues that betray the script's off-Broadway origins. When Hoffman attempts to break the stage-bound tedium, it's with affected fantasy sequences of Jack's dream interior. It's a real head-scratcher when Connie calls this stumbling slob sexy, though it's easy to understand what he sees in her. Ryan is so effortlessly charming, so sweet and real, you wish there was a better part written for her, and she's so terrific in fact, you may resent that she wasn't famous sooner.
Jack Goes Boating is a romance so peculiar and low-key you may wonder why someone bothered to tell it. But if everyone gave as much play to all the isolated lonely hearts as screenwriters and playwrights do, then the world might be a happier place.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.