Jack Goes Boating, directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and starring him, Amy Ryan, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and John Ortiz, is a charmingly disturbing movie, which investigates how to sustain a friendship between seriously flawed friends. Featuring platonic and non-traditional romantic relationships, the two friendships survive the chaos of secrets, disillusionment, and self-destruction.
Jack and Clyde are limo drivers with bigger dreams. Jack longs to work in public transportation and Clyde attends night school. Such are their hopes and strategies. What’s more important is that they don’t simply complain, they try so damn hard to improve how they see themselves. Without heroism but rather, plain grit, they endure closed doors, mockery, and personal limitations while Clyde’s marriage finally falls apart and Jack’s anti-romance slowly matures. Clyde teaches Jack to swim and connects him with a pastry chef who teaches Jack to cook. Jack follows Clyde’s and the chef’s directions in and out of the water, most importantly, learning to visualize success—one stroke and chop at a time. If you’ve ever learned to master a basic skill late in life, you’ll better understand his struggle to surmount shame and succeed.
Jack and Connie are social misfits who can barely carry on a conversation together. As he stares at her, enthralled, she narrates her father’s death in such a serious way that leaves you the only one laughing at its bizarreness. From there, she narrates tales of lecherous men with the same intensity. Unconvinced, you’ve disconnected from her drama, that is, until you personally witness the bloody aftermath of a subway pervert’s attack. While smugly misjudging her to be overly dramatic and suspicious—if not a lying paranoid—you’re also misjudging Clyde—who’s entranced by her tales and her telling—as borderline moronic. Eventually, like all good satires, the jokes on you. You’re the target. You and your stereotyping have misplaced your criticism while overlooking a blossoming friendship. Now, you’re starting to take them seriously. Repeating their first encounter, Connie does most of the talking and Clyde does all of the work. Foolishly, he promises to go boating with her when winter ends, although he can’t swim, and throw a dinner party for her, although he can’t cook. It’s not her fault. She has no clue of his limitations. And you can’t say that Clyde suffers. In fact, he blossoms. In Aristotelian fashion, his accomplishments foster his confidence not just to swim and cook but to relate to Connie. He self-actualizes by acting, fulfilling Abraham Maslow’s 3 criteria for self-actualizing (according to my synthesis). First, Clyde self-reflects. For proof of this, we must rely on the camera. So intensely do we see Jack process his conversations with Connie, Clyde and Clydes wife that awareness is illustrated in his eyes, brow furrowing, smile, and hair smoothing. He is clearly processing what they say and calmly experiencing new emotions—fascination, sadness, distress, confusion. Second, Clyde rejects social stigmas. He dresses quirky. He limits his associations to three others. He pursues his projects despite the embarrassment of being a middle-aged man without a kitchen, without the skills to swim and cook, and without physical attractiveness. He probably cares. We see him trying to pat down his unruly hair and dressing a little better for the big culinary date. But he doesn’t care beyond his associations with Connie and Clyde. He carefully selects who is important to him and ignores the rest. Third, Jack commits himself to something/one bigger than himself—his friendships. So loyal is he that Connie’s sensitivity to touch is just a speed bump. He slows down and surmounts (mounts) her anxiety. So loyal is he to Clyde that he forgives his friend’s drugging, which ruins the painstakingly created feast.
The movie ends with a poignant scene. Yes, Clyde and Connie have had sex and they are clearly in love. However, this does not a romance make. Connie’s eyes (and left ring finger) are not set on marriage to a man of means nor does she define herself as her prince’s princess. Furthermore, the plot eschews the movie romance cycle: boy pursues and snags girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Think Ten Things I Hate About You. Rather, marriage and apendaging are replaced by friendship and accomplishment. We see this in that last scene. Clyde, presumably estranged from his wife (good riddance, I say), sends Connie and Jack down a street in a lower class neighborhood. Their dress, the street, the weather—are all bland and uninspiring. When Jack brags that he is a good swimmer, he is not confessing the truth—but his realization that he is better for knowing Connie.
Jack: Don’t worry, I’m a good swimmer.
Connie: I knew you’d be good.
Jack: I am for you.
“I am” covers criterion 1 and “for you” covers criteria 2 and 3. I hope that makes sense. Put another way…When we intentionally redirect our lives with an intentionally chosen few for an intentionally chosen cause, we self-actualize. We don’t have to succeed. But like Goethe’s version of the Faust legend, we need to strive.
See the movie. I probably didn’t do it justice. Amy Ryan’s and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performances create a haunting visual and verbal sense that surpasses a “slice of life” movie. There’s something very, very odd but also, very real and appealing about them. Something in them—innocence, fragility, gullibility, or foolishness, perhaps—is something in all of us. Or maybe it was and we lost it. Maybe you’ll find a little of that lost something as you watch. I did.