"Jack Goes Boating" marks an unexciting, but sturdy directing debut for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also stars and executive produces.

The intimate four-hander is a Sundance-standard ensemble about two New York City couples talking about love, friendship and whether or not it's possible to change your life. Although Bob Glaudini has opened up his play only slightly, the dramedy is a not-unwelcome reminder that when you put a technically adept actor in charge of a group of technically adept actors, the results will usually at least be emotionally authentic and well-played.

Hoffman's Oscar-winning stature is sufficient that "Jack Goes Boating" already has distribution through Overture, though it stands to reason that the company will hold off on releasing the film until the fall when it wouldn't be surprising to see Hoffman get his usual token mention in the Oscar race.

[A brief review of "Jack Goes Boating" after the break...]

In "Jack Goes Boating," Hoffman and John Ortiz play limo drivers with dreams. Ortiz's Clyde, taking business courses for the sake of unspecified personal advancement, is married to Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), but their long-standing relationship is going through a rough patch, with difficulties that can't be fixed with liberal use of marijuana and other recreational drugs. Lucy works for a smarmy funeral home owner/video grief counselor (Tom McCarthy) and new colleague Connie (Amy Ryan), a compulsive truth-teller whose already fragile psyche is about to take a beating. Clyde and Lucy decide to set Connie up with Hoffman's Jack, a reggae-loving schlub who hopes to work for the MTA someday.

Even as he sees the stress that coupling causes for Clyde and Lucy, Jack is so attracted to Connie that she inspires him to try new things, including learning to swim and learning to cook, two skills he develops with the help of self-visualization.

It isn't hard to think of Jack's journey as being Hoffman's own journey as a veteran actor finally finding a project that made him want to step behind the camera to attempt to direct. Working with cinematographer Mott Hupfel, Hoffman doesn't give in to jittery, hand-held indie drama cliches. "Jack Goes Boating" looks polished and carefully composed, even if the self-visualization and swimming pool scenes only slightly open up the world. Hoffman is really much better in the quite conversational scenes, showing particular adeptness with tonal balancing, as even sequences geared toward histrionics are punctuated with humor. Like several Hoffman films, most recently "The Savages," "Jack Goes Boating" will be promotable as a sardonic dark comedy, even if it's more of a relationship dramedy.

"Jack Goes Boating" was staged with Hoffman, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega as stars and the three actors having an immediate and apparent chemistry. As Connie is the newcomer, bringing Ryan into the mix as a fresh face was a smart decision. One of the things I've always loved about Ryan, from "The Wire" to "The Office," is that she's one of the few beautiful actresses who can play "normal" without seeming to be condescending or disingenuous. She comes across as vulnerable and uncomfortable in her own skin, even when other characters pay her compliments. Ryan's comedic chops allow Connie's frankness, possibly disturbing or unappealing with a different interpretation, to play as an endearing trait. Her unconditional honesty is played against Clyde and Lucy, who keep only telling each other enough partial truths to ensure that the whole truth will invariably hurt more when it comes out.

The title character is a great role for Hoffman, though Jack's assortment of tics and awkwardness don't find him in foreign terrain. Jack is another Hoffman character who tip-toes the line of complete social dysfunction, though desire to improve for Connie makes him more embraceable than some of Hoffman's previous stunted man-children.

Speaking of stunted man-children, I've already seen three scripted Sundance films this year that feature beautiful women falling for well-below-their-station guys in arrested development. It's one of the most enduring cliches of Sundance-dom, though "Jack Goes Boating" at least does a better job of defending Connie's affections. Still, the familiarity and Sundance-y nature of "Jack Goes Boating" may make it one of those rare movies that plays better away from the thin air of Park City, where suddenly it won't seem like the latest iteration of an endlessly copied meme.

The title of "Jack Goes Boating" refers to the challenges the main character is willing to undertake in order to make himself worthy of love. Even if Hoffman's film only plays in a minor key, it's an admirable theme.

Now? Off to Main Street to chat with Hoffman about his directing debut. I'll post that interview either later today or tomorrow, depending on how soon my fingers thaw.

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