Some movies are about the filmmaking and nothing else.
Others are about the story. Still others use the story to explore the characters and the performances, without a lot of time spent on making a splashy visual impression.
Personally I prefer movies that are about something, other than the fact that they're movies. Style is like frosting; story, character and performance are the cake.
Which is why I'm so partial to Jack Goes Boating, the directorial debut of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. While Hoffman throws in the occasionally visual frisson, he is more interested in mapping the emotional landscape of his characters.
It's fertile ground. We're in the land of the deeply inarticulate here, people with big feelings and no way to express them. "I dunno, Marty, whadda you wanna do?" Ring a bell?
In this adaptation of a play by Robert Glaudini, Hoffman plays Jack, a dreadlocked, reggae-loving, pot-smoking limo driver. He's lonely but such an interior character that he seems incapable of meeting -- or more accurately, of talking to -- women. But he lets his best friend and colleague, Clyde (John Ortiz), talk him into letting Clyde and his wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), fix him up on a date with her colleague, Connie (Amy Ryan).
Connie is almost as hapless as Jack. They both see themselves as losers, mostly because they can't figure out how to tell anyone else what it is they want and, so, never get it. They both seem to have rich inner lives -- and spot each other as kindred spirits, slowly working their way toward a satisfying kind of communication.
Like a play, the film moves episodically to a climax in which Jack will cook a dinner for Connie. You can spot the crisis brewing a mile away -- the slow crumbling of the marriage of Clyde and Lucy, which will finally implode on Jack's big night.
Yet Hoffman lets it unfold organically, as small irritations trigger larger upsets and small pleasures lead to deeper intimacy. But the simmering grievances between Clyde and Lucy fester until they erupt in not-quite-spontaneous combustion.
The title refers to the revelation that Connie would like to go boating and Jack would like to take her. But Jack doesn't know how to swim, so Clyde teaches him. As a metaphor -- for a land-locked soul suddenly freed to explore the rest of the world -- it could be clumsy or poetic. Hoffman uses the swimming scenes to offer moments of grace to his otherwise lumpen character.
The cast is uniformly good, finding the depth of feeling in these characters without pushing or straining. They don't just act; they listen and react. As good as Hoffman and Ryan are, they're matched by Ortiz and Rubin-Vega, whose characters are playing games that their friends would rather not learn.
Jack Goes Boating, which played at both Sundance and Toronto, is a noteworthy directing debut for the Oscar-winning Hoffman, who proves himself as sure-handed behind the camera as in front.