Saturday, August 7, 2010

Review: Jack (1996)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Robin Williams, Bill Cosby, Jennifer Lopez, Diane Lane, Adam Zolotin

"What do I want to be when I grow up? Alive."
-Jack Powell

This movie was marketed entirely wrong. See that colorful movie cover up there? See how colorful and goofy it looks? Well, that’s not this movie at all. I’m totally serious; I went in expecting a really silly, banal comedy and came out actually thinking about my life and feeling pretty depressed and soulful. Would you expect that from looking at the cover for this movie? No? Well that proves it, movie executives; you guys need better marketing campaigns for your movies.

Even more perplexing is that it’s made by Francis Ford Coppola, director of the Godfather movies and Dracula, which I’ll be reviewing in a couple of days. This is not the kind of movie anyone expected him to make, but it’s a personal one, as he lost his own young son at an early age. Upon reading about that…well, it all clicked into place for this movie.

So, Jack…it’s about Robin Williams as a young boy who has a tragic disease that speeds up his cell aging by about 4 times the normal rate, making him appear 4 times older than he really is. As you can imagine, this is a cause for the parents to be pretty overprotective – so much so that they went all the way to Bill Cosby as a tutor. That’s some real parental love right there! But soon enough he wants to go to a public school and be with kids his own age. And they let him. And hijinks ensue – but surprisingly, they’re…not all THAT stupid and not all THAT annoying to watch. It’s played straight.

I’m as surprised as you are. A movie that had Robin Williams being directed to act like a 10 year old is actually doing a reasonable and mature job of handling the subject. My jaw was on the floor. I was expecting to hate this movie! I looked at the summary, looked at the cover and went, that can’t possibly be good. Did I just…randomly go into a parallel universe where terrible, heinous ideas turn into good movies? Did I get hit on the head? Whatever the case, I’m not complaining.

Jack sets things up pretty well, all things considered. The acting is really top notch, with Diane Lane as the mother giving a believable performance and all of the child actors doing very well. Williams is the central focus, of course, as he stumbles his way through life with a wide-eyed curiosity and a very authentic ten-year-old boy way of talking and walking. The scenes on the playground where the kids interact with him are all really great, as they slowly learn to accept him as he is – maybe it’s a little too quick, considering how mean little kids can actually get, but hey, it’s only a 2 hour movie. And the whole sequence starting with his asking out his teacher (Jennifer Lopez) to the school dance, leading up to his heart contraction, is just mesmerizing.

His parents don’t want him to go back to school due to his illness getting worse with age. This is one of the film’s most memorable motifs. His spirit slowly breaks and he becomes depressed, losing his will to do anything but sit around and be safe. His mom just tries to be the best parent she can be, but it’s clear as day to the viewer that she’s making the wrong choice on this – Williams doesn’t need to be pampered and preserved; he’s not going to live that long anyway. He needs to go out like he does in the rest of the movie and just live. His speech at his graduation ceremony is schmaltzy, but it’s really touching, too. Very well done.

There are a couple really stupid things about this movie, though…mostly centering around Louie’s mother, recently widowed and always searching for a new man. If the laws of implausibility and wrongheaded comedy ever had a gold-mine, this is it, as she actually flirts with him and tries to get him to go out to dinner with her. Later on at a club they meet again and they dance, with him actually grabbing her ass…well, uh, okay. This plot point is just creepy, really, and doesn’t add much to the movie besides something to take away from the genuine emotive power of the rest of it. Yay for pedophilia? Seriously, it actually borders on disturbing. And just imagine what would have happened if some passerby had discovered them all in the clubhouse – what would it look like? A grown man sitting around with kids in a clubhouse looking at nude magazines?

But I realized that that is not the correct way to approach this movie – in fact, it’s exactly the opposite of what the movie wants to get across. Jack is a movie about childhood and the short time we sometimes have on this Earth, and its moral is that we need to let go and just live every second like it’s our last. I liked it for its bare honesty and earnest disposition. It was a nice little trip through the eyes of a very unique child. The acting is great, the story is pretty interesting and the themes are worldly and relevant to anyone. Jack is a good movie. Go see it.