January 25, 2010 / 5:55 AM / 10 years ago

Hoffman sets sail with directing debut "Boating"

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - For his feature directing debut, Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t wander far off the reservation.

“Jack Goes Boating” is based on Bob Glaudini’s play that Hoffman’s theater troupe, LAByrinth, produced off-Broadway with Hoffman and fellow artistic director John Ortiz starring alongside third actor in both productions, Daphne Rubin-Vega.

Within such a comfort zone, Hoffman emerges as a confident film director with visual flair and, no surprise, a remarkable ability to maximize his fellow actors’ work.

“Boating” is an offbeat relationship piece focusing on marginal characters among the working class, people who look with considerable fear or regret at their lives. There aren’t mentally challenged or stupid. In fact, they are quite bright. They just never got or perhaps misplaced the handbook telling them how to charge ahead in life. In a sense, this is an updated version of Paddy Chayefsky’s award-winning 1950s teleplay and later screenplay, “Marty.”

This is very much a Sundance kind of movie, so its distributor, Overture Films, will have to market it as such. Its quirks and insights are heartfelt but must play to the right audience, where Hoffman’s delicate craftsmanship as an actor and director will be appreciated. Fortunately, Hoffman already has achieved indie “brand” status, so this shouldn’t be too difficult.

Hoffman plays Jack, a limo driver who rarely ventures outside the shell of his job. His circle of friends consists of exactly two — fellow driver Clyde (Ortiz) and his wife, Lucy (Rubin-Vega). He, in fact, becomes their project. They mean to bring him out of that shell by setting him up with Lucy’s co-worker at a Brooklyn funeral parlor, Connie (Amy Ryan).

Actually, both Jack and Connie are projects since Connie seems terrified of men and relationships despite her longing to become involved. A natural timidity only increases her suspicions about men.

To get anywhere with Connie, Jack is going to need lessons. When he learns that Connie would love to go boating — it’s the dead of winter, so he has many months to prepare — he takes swimming lessons from Clyde. When Connie expresses a desire for someone to cook her dinner, Jack takes culinary lessons from a chef. What gradually emerges is that Clyde and Lucy need these projects to take their minds off their own crumbling marriage. Driving a wedge between the couple is a betrayal long ago but never forgotten and their mutual frustration that Clyde never has achieved anything close to success in life.

The scenes between Hoffman and Ryan are tender, full of hope and wistfulness as they search for just the right path they might take as a couple. These scenes embarrass conventional movie romances by insisting that for most couples it happens more like this than those outbursts of erotic passion backed by symphonic cheering and the best makeup and wardrobe a studio can provide. Glaudini’s writing is sympathetic to Connie’s need for things to happen slowly so she can have confidence in the physical intimacy she so desperately yearns for with a man like Jack. And Jack welcomes the pace as a way, he hopes, to avoid mistakes.

On the other hand, the scenes between Ortiz and Rubin-Vega are frightening. Where one senses a strong, ardent love once existed, sharp bitterness lies just beneath the surface. They are stuck as a couple; no, worse, they are going backwards. By promoting the Jack-Connie love connection, the couple perhaps is trying to write a new beginning for themselves as well. But will it work?

“Boating” is a small, slender yet fond slice of life. Although an ambitious, emotional piece, the material is right in Hoffman’s wheelhouse, and he hits it full force. It would be interesting to see what would happen if he stretches himself next time as a director, if he gets outside that comfort zone.

The impressionistic mood of the film is greatly enhanced by a gentle, piano-centric score by Even Lurie coupled with the feathery, cerebral harmonies of the Brooklyn band Grizzly Bear.

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