Reality bites. On one end of love-story spectrum, you’ve got your impossibly beautiful creatures, complications based on easily resolvable misunderstandings, and the requisite Big Gestures. On the other end are real people! And real people are awkward and harbor resentments; life can be slow-moving and dull. And though on-screen believability is to be celebrated, sometimes you go to the movies wanting a ridiculous I-love-you! dash to the airport instead of a relentless reflection of your own boring or bile-filled existence.
Pseudo-reality is worse. And this is mostly what you get in Jack Goes Boating, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s adaptation of a Robert Glaudini play that may be a promising directorial debut but offers characters so “real” you can feel the writer sketching in their quirks. Or lack thereof: Jack (Hoffman) is a dreadlocked New York limo driver who lives in his uncle’s basement and dreams of working for the MTA. He’s never been in a long-term relationship, so his friend and fellow chauffeur, Clyde (John Ortiz), sets him up with Connie (Amy Ryan), a generally damaged woman who works in the sales department of a mortuary with Clyde’s wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega).
On their first date, a double at Clyde and Lucy’s apartment, Connie talks about her father dying and a medic hitting on her; Jack says “Oh, God” a lot. He walks her to a cab in the wind and snow, both of them shielded in big coats, hats, and scarves. (Metaphor alert!) When Connie is attacked—her blood is real, her story of sexual assault questionable—Jack visits her in the hospital. During this time she leaks enough information for Jack to know how to impress her: She wants to go for a boat ride, and no one’s ever cooked for her. So he starts taking swimming and cooking lessons, the latter in preparation for a “feast”...that he schedules for a month away.
If it sounds like a lot of effort to go through to win over someone with obvious intimacy issues (at this point, they’ve barely pecked), it is—though Ryan’s Connie, at least, is quietly intriguing and a nice person. Jack’s a nice guy, too, with low-key charm and an obvious desire to improve himself, even if it takes someone else to finally make him do it. But as they dance around each other for weeks—nearly always in those hats and coats—what exactly attracts each to the other is a question mark. Loneliness, you say? Perhaps, though Connie eventually confesses, “I really like you” and tells Jack he’s sexy. You’ll think “Why?” to the former and “Seriously?!” to the latter: Hoffman, with those dreads and a triple beer gut, looks more slovenly than ever. (Hoffman originated the role on stage.)
While the film’s main couple is a head-scratching snooze, however, Clyde and Lucy eventually offer sparks, albeit the hate-fueled kind of a compromising couple who have looked the other way on their issues for a bit too long. Their cool, day-to-day politeness that inevitably blows up is unquestionably realistic; it’s just that bitterness doesn’t exactly make for pleasurable movie-going, particularly when it explodes on the tail-end of a whole lot of nothing.
Glaudini adapted his own play, which at least ensures that the dialogue is sharp and often wonderfully rhythmic. Hoffman’s direction, meanwhile, veers from effectively pedestrian to affected, its worst moments filled with plaintive piano and fantasy sequences of Jack visualizing his swimming and cooking moves. Every time Jack’s eyes close, yours may be tempted to, too.
Never Let Me Go Directed by Mark Romanek
Clone love is the equally slow-moving subject of Never Let Me Go, a sci-fi romance based on a Kazuo Ishiguro novel whose story starts in 1978 but, interestingly, in a world whose technology exceeds our own. A medical breakthrough occurred in 1952, we’re told, and by the late ’60s, life expectancy passed 100 years. In 1994, we meet Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), a “carer” whose exact responsibilities aren’t yet clear. Yet she teases that carers “aren’t machines...[the job] always wears you down.”
Back in 1978, though, Kathy was a student at Hailsham, an English boarding school whose students, the headmistress tells them, are “special” and must keep healthy. The kids are relatively carefree—except for worrying about those rumors of awful things that happen to children who leave the grounds—and normal, if a bit stressed by the school’s emphasis on art. Like any adolescents, then, they develop crushes: Kathy (now played by Isobel Meikle-Small) has a thing for Tommy (Charlie Rowe), an outcast with a bit of a behavior problem and an inability to get his drawings noticed. Kathy’s best friend, Ruth (Ella Purnell), doesn’t seem to care about Kathy and Tommy’s friendship, except when she does. By the time they’re young adults and ready to leave their first school for another, Ruth (Keira Knightley, with unfortunate bangs) has snagged Tommy (Andrew Garfield) for herself. Mulligan’s Kathy pines politely.
The heartbreak would perhaps be easier to bear had a “subversive” and quickly dismissed teacher (Sally Hawkins) not told the children the truth about their futures: Basically, that they had none, and were only bred to provide organs for the fatally ill. After a few donations, most of them would “complete”—Ishiguro’s prettier term for “die.” (28 Days Later... scripter Alex Garland adapted the book; One Hour Photo’s Mark Romanek directs.)
The majority of Never Let Me Go focuses on the love triangle, to snoozy effect. Kathy’s choice to become a carer gives her, essentially, a stay of execution, though the price is watching her peers die. Not much happens a decade before this, where the film lingers for a while, with the threesome making (or, in Kathy’s case, not making) friends, looking (not very hard) for their “originals,” and hearing too-good-to-be-true tales of the possibility of donor-deferment should a couple prove that they’re in love.
It all takes place in a gray, rainy, wool-sweater milieu; Adam Kimmel’s cinematography may echo the story’s somber tone, but doesn’t do much to keep the viewer from drifting. Neither does the acting: Mulligan, while lovely, isn’t given much to do but observe the others with her trademark parted-lips stare, while Knightely is noteworthy only for how scrawny and awful she looks. Garfield—the future Spider-Man—is also vanilla, his grown-up Tommy far less personable than the child.
The friends’ fortunes turn 10 years later, and finally the story turns its attention from romance to the more interesting ethical questions about the characters’ existence. With their ability to love, play, hurt, and create, are they worth any less than the people they’re saving? But such thoughtfulness comes too late. For a more engaging meditation on the wonders —and possible horrors—of science, read the book.