At the Arthouse

Philip Seymour Hoffman pulls a Houston movie man out of a post-Angelika funk

Philip Seymour Hoffman pulls a Houston movie man out of a post-Angelika funk

I got very excited the morning I  found out that Jack Goes Boating was opening in Houston. I had been looking forward to the movie, mostly because it marks Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut, but that wasn’t why I did a double take at the ad in the Houston Chronicle. Instead it was because, according to the ad, the film was opening in the Landmark Greenway.

Good news on the art house front, I thought. And badly needed news! I’d gone into a movie funk with the sudden overnight closing of the Angelika Film Center. I no longer scanned the Sunday TImes to see which French crime drama was headed to these shores, because I’d probably have to drive to Dallas to see it on the big screen.

Except for needing the subtitles, I might as well just go to France. But here was a sign that a barely dared prayer had been answered; the weird old orange-walled Greenway triplex was back!

Except that it wasn’t. The Landmark River Oaks manager explained that a mistake had been made in the Chronicle ad — the film was playing at the Edwards Greenway.

If I’d known from the start that Jack Goes Boating was “just” playing at the Edwards, I might not have bothered to see it. Such was the ongoing state of my depression. But now I told myself to snap out of it. Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t direct a movie every day. 

So I paid my three dollars to park and entered the Edwards, where I found, not an art house, but an art corner. In one nook of the cineplex, three screens were devoted to films that had probably been Angelika-bound: Jack Goes Boating, The Tillman Story, and Catfish.

That didn’t seem so bad. In fact, seeing those films on the digital marquee alongside The Social Network and Resident Evil:  Afterlife reminded me that I used to argue that the “art house” was a kind of ghetto, and that more challenging films ought to be playing at the ‘plex, so that the unsuspecting might wander in and be amazed. 

I’m not saying that I don’t want the Angelika back, (or the Landmark Greenway, for that matter) or that we won’t miss out on some interesting films.  (I’m very curious to see how many subtitled films will open at the mainstream theaters. I’m afraid it will be a small number, but I’m hoping to be surprised.) But, they’re long gone, so I welcomed myself to the brave new multi-screened world of Houston art film. 

It’s not so bad. 

And, what about Jack Goes Boating?  The film, adapted from a play by Bob Glaudini, is resolutely small. It tells the story of four very ordinary, working class New Yorkers. Two of them, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Clyde (John Ortiz), comprise a married couple who play matchmaker for one of Lucy’s work underlings, Connie (Amy Ryan) and Clyde’s fellow limo driver, Jack (Hoffman). Jack and Clyde are best friends.

Actually, Connie and Jack are not as “ordinary” as the matchmaking couple. They’re low-key people, easy to ignore, or to mock once you noticed them, but they also seem beamed in from another planet. Jack is a grown man who lives in his uncle’s basement, and who has adopted a subtly Rasta style. When the going gets tough, Jack puts on the The Harder They Come soundtrack (he does have good taste), focusing on the Melodians’ “By the Rivers of Babylon.”

Taste aside, he seems unduly challenged by life, for unexplained reasons.

Connie is supervised by Lucy at some kind of mortuarial services sales job, but Connie is too passive to close many deals. She seems like the kind of frail person that New York would simply eat alive. She is probably the first person who has ever needed Jack, and once he understands how important he might become to her, the rather slovenly man glows with unaccustomed excitement. He resolves to change his life — to find a new job, and to learn to both cook and swim, skills he’ll need if he’s to indulge Connie on her dream date. 

Like The Kids Are All Right and other intimate dramas, Jack Goes Boating provides a feast of fine acting.  Seymour somehow makes his frankly ridiculous character sublime, while Ryan’s bone-deep vulnerability is quite touching. I have to admit, though, that both characters feel literary, rather than real. 

Jack does have several truly alive moments; most of them come with Clyde, in particular when Clyde is teaching the rotund, literally baby-faced Jack to swim. 

Clyde and Lucy, on the other hand, seem all too real. At first they represent everything that Jack is missing in his lonely life. Later, they come to represent everything he and Connie hope to avoid. They’re a wounded couple, with (of course) self-inflicted wounds. One of the film’s pleasures comes in watching as Hoffman and the actors gradually reveal the married couple’s cracks. 

In general the movie feels like a filmed play of the kitchen-sink variety, rather than truly cinematic. But at times Hoffman sets the camera free to capture moments of grace. Editor Brian A. Kates does noteworthy work here; during several passages the images flow together in surprising and satisfying ways. 

I’m glad it’s playing here.


A glimpse of Jack Goes Boating:

Jack Goes Boating
Jack Goes Boating isn't a great movie, but it still pulled me out of my post Angelika closing movie malaise.
Angelika closing brown paper
The movie scene hasn't been the same in Houston since the Angelika suddenly shuttered. Photo By Nic Phillips
Jack goes Boating pool
It took Philip Seymour Hoffman directing to get this movie lover to jump back into the art house pool.