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Two New Hollywood Flicks This Weekend

JACK GOES BOATING :   Directorial debuts by actors are sometimes scene-chewing, ego-stroking exercises. Philip Seymour Hoffman's "Jack Goes Boating," so refreshingly bereft of those qualities, is more content with humility and authenticity. The film opens
PTI September 17, 2010 20:39 IST
JACK GOES BOATING :   Directorial debuts by actors are sometimes scene-chewing, ego-stroking exercises. Philip Seymour Hoffman's "Jack Goes Boating," so refreshingly bereft of those qualities, is more content with humility and authenticity.

The film opens with an overhead shot of Jack _ overweight, unshaven and not appearing to possess anything like "gusto" _ in bed. The threat of bedridden depression is never far from "Jack Goes Boating," but the film _ and Jack _ is propelled forward. Inertia gives way to self-improvement, love and, yes, reggae.

Quiet and stuttering, Jack is a limo driver with the goal of landing a job with the MTA. (One man's dream is another man's nightmare.) He also loves reggae; he listens to "Rivers of Babylon" constantly on headphones and in his car. The sunny song is a stark contrast to the New York winter of the film and Jack's less than jubilant life.

"Would you consider yourself a Rasta-man?" sarcastically asks his fellow driver and best friend, Clyde (John Oritz).

It turns out to be a reasonable question. Jack's blond knots may be a poor attempt at dreadlocks, but those around him gradually realize he has a way of inspiring good vibes.

Clyde, confident and sensitive at once, is married to Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who has built herself a tougher front. Years of marriage and infidelity have drained their relationship. They're coming apart at the seams from jealousy and distrust.

They set up Jack with a colleague of Lucy's, Connie (Amy Ryan), from the funeral home she works at. They assure him a dinner party of the four of them won't be awkward: "We'll just order something," they tell him over and over.

Against the odds, Jack and Connie hit it off. Further dates, though, bring more anxiety. When Connie suggests dinner, Jack devotes himself to weeks of cooking training. When she says they should go for a boat ride in the summer, he quickly sets about learning to swim.

Clyde, the kind of devoted friend anyone would want, gives Jack swimming lessons at the local YMCA. Marching along the pool, he cheers Jack on. Under water, his wide-eye, goggled face is pure hope. The film's best scenes are here; in chlorine-filled waters, Jack learns to fly.

But "Jack Goes Boating" _ an ancestor of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" _ is no simple love story. While Jack and Connie are building a new relationship, Lucy and Clyde are falling apart after years together. There's no judgment here: Love is hard and things can sour.

The film is based on the play by the same name by Bob Glaudini. Its Broadway run _ which starred Hoffman, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega _ was produced by LAByrinth Theater Company, for which Hoffman and Ortiz were artistic directors.

It comes as little surprise that Hoffman would know how to capture a good performance, and those of "Jack Goes Boating" are incredibly full. Ortiz and Rubin-Vega ("Rent"), both well-respected theater actors, are excellent. Ortiz, in particular, vacillates between hope and self-destruction with remarkable bipolar truthfulness.

Hoffman reveals Jack the sad sack to be an odd, inarticulate Buddha, willing to put in the work it takes for growth. Except for the climactic scene, his direction rarely feels stage-y."Jack Goes Boating" contains none of the easy, syncopated lilt of a reggae tune, but it moves to the awkward beat of life. Reespek, mon.

"Jack Goes Boating," an Overture Films release, is rated R for language, drug use and some sexual content. Running time: 90 minutes. Three stars out of four.     

EASY A:   The movies are getting faster.

This season, the dialogue seems to be speeding up to an instant messaging pace. Like another web-savvy, hyper-verbal movie out soon, "The Social Network," "Easy A" has some of the wordy whip-smarts of "His Girl Friday," although its inspiration is much more John Hughes with a dash of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

High school teenager Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) is beautiful, sarcastic and witty. She breezes through phrases like "terminal illogical inexactitude" (falsehoods that travel quickly), makes elaborate Google Earth metaphors and does it all without arrogance or even an upturned eyebrow. She is, in short, a long way out of any teenage boy's league.

"Easy A" begins with her speaking directly into the camera, her computer's webcam, explaining that "the rumors of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated." Introducing her story, she declares herself a reliable narrator "of sound mind and average breast size."

This narration continues sporadically throughout "Easy A," but we only in the end find out its reason. In between, Olive accidentally develops a reputation as an "easy" girl after, to satiate her badgering best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka), she lies about losing her virginity.

The rumor, spread by the school's resident religious zealot Marianne (Amanda Bynes, playing the blond type usually made a cheerleader in such movies), moves at the speed of Twitter. Olive does not especially mind that her reputation is soiled since she was previously anonymous.

She even embraces the role, sacrificing her rep for the sins of her classmates' sexual anxieties. Unlike most any high-schooler, Olive doesn't care what anyone thinks of her.

To help a gay friend fend off his heterosexual bullies, she pretends to have sex with him. Other suitors soon come calling, too, like a portly kid looking for an image boost.

It quickly gets out of hand and even her friends turn on her. Still undaunted, Olive dresses more provocatively (like a young, similarly chaste Britney Spears) and pins a red "A" to her outfit. The reference, of course, is Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," which she is reading in a class taught by the school's coolest teacher (Thomas Haden Church, in perfect casting).

Narrating, Olive recommends "the original" film version, not "the Demi Moore one" where she takes "a bunch of baths." "Easy A" cleverly inverts Hawthorne's tale: Virginity is never lost, but in the age of Facebook (which, incidentally, Church's character gives a wonderful rant on), rumor alone is cruel enough. "Whatever happened to chivalry?" wonders Olive, an outcast by then. "Did it only exist in `80s movies?" "John Hughes did not direct my life," she adds.

That's true; Will Gluck did. Gluck, whose previous film was another high school film, 2009's "Fired Up!", ably and stylistically transfers Bert V. Royal's excellent, nimble script. Gluck weaves in modern technology seamlessly. In one sharp running gag, a pop song goes from an annoyance to an obsession to a ring tone.

The adults nearly steal the film. As Olive's parents, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are hysterical. Olive's sarcasm is theirs exactly; together they are something like a troupe of clever actors role-playing as a family.

True to life, they are far less responsible than the younger, wiser generation. Tucci's father says he was gay once "for a long time"; Clarkson's mother admits having slept with most of her high school. As a guidance counselor, Lisa Kudrow has more issues than her students. As the school principal, Malcolm McDowell proclaims his mission as only to "keep the girls off the pole and the guys off the pipe."

For all its Hawthorne quoting, "Easy A" is clearly the stepchild of Hughes; Olive is a kind of modern day Ferris Bueller. She has it pretty close to all figured out, and she even gets her own big, gratuitous musical number. It is a terrifically deadpan, lively performance from Stone.

But this swaggering comedy, as you might expect, will tie things up too neatly. File "Easy A" alongside "Twilight": Sex just isn't part of coming-of-age stories at the movies these days.

 "Easy A," a Sony-Screen Gems release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements involving teen sexuality, language and some drug material. Running time: 93 minutes. Three stars out of four. AP