'Jack Goes Boating' proves Hoffman a promising helmsman

Jack, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating, is a middle-aged man encased in baby fat and periodically immobilized by teen terrors. In this film, the actor's film directorial debut, Jack might be the spawn of Ernest Borgnine's Marty.

This modest screen adaptation of the play by Bob Glaudini is the story of the gravity-bound fledgling who may never fly, but slowly, slowly, slowly overcomes his fear of water and women. It is a sign of Hoffman's skill as a director, which may someday match his formidable acting talents, that he shows us how learning to swim buoys Jack, lifting him from a sinkhole of loneliness.

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars with Amy Ryan in the first feature film he has directed.

Jack's friend Clyde (the electric John Ortiz), a fellow limo driver, is the sympathetic teacher who coaxes this lonely turtle out of his shell. First Clyde fixes him up with Connie (Amy Ryan), who works with Clyde's wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). And when Connie, another lonely soul, tells Jack that she'd like to go boating, Clyde volunteers to teach the nonswimmer how to get in the swim.

The movie does not obscure its stage roots. Hoffman, Ortiz, and Rubin-Vega reprise their roles in the original Off-Broadway production by LAByrinth Theater, the company founded by Hoffman and Ortiz. While Hoffman has found ways to make the screen version cinematic, a pivotal scene in Clyde and Lucy's tenement apartment feels so much like filmed theater that I could hear the squeak of the curtain lower.

The play's structure, too, is more suited to stage than to screen. For while Jack Goes Boating announces itself as a character study of how Mr. Lonely will connect to a companion, it belatedly reveals itself to be a meditation on the different kinds of loneliness, presenting isolation as a form of social stage fright.

The performances are uniformly top-notch. It was a treat to see Ortiz, an actor known on screen mostly for his impressive cameos in movies like El Cantante, in a leading part enabling him to express his considerable emotional range. May this be his calling card for bigger, meatier roles.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

Jack Goes Boating

Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. With Daphne Rubin-Vega, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, Harry L. Seddon, Kevin Cannon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Ricky Garcia, Mark Vincent. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.

Running time: 1 hours, 29 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language, drug use and some sexual content).