Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack” (1996)

I knew this moment was coming, and I was dreading it just as soon I decided to focus on the work of director Francis Ford Coppola.  How is that one man can be the author behind both one of the greatest films of all time, and yet also be responsible for one of the worst as well?  It quite literally defies the laws of physics.  The first time someone, anyone hears that Coppola directed JACK (1996), they stop in their tracks, struck dumb by shocked disbelief.  How could this… thing exist in the world and not have the universe collapse in on itself?

Hyperbolic rhetoric aside, JACK is a confounding entry in Coppola’s oeuvre.  We’ve seen Coppola capable of some head-scratchingly awful work before, but at least it was awful in the attempt of pushing boundaries, or challenging himself.  JACK, while infuriatingly poignant by the end, commits the worst sin in art:  indifference.

The film knows exactly what it is but doesn’t try to be anything more than that, its “drama” culled from cliché sentimentality and blatantly manipulative storytelling.  This was my second viewing of JACK, and I’ll admit that I couldn’t help shedding a tear as the film drew to a close, but I was angry with myself over doing so— that emotion wasn’t earned by good storytelling, it simply exploited the overt poignancy of the moment and cranked up the sad music and soft-focus cinematography to 11 in a rapacious attempt to force me into feeling something.

JACK, first and foremost, is a family film— which I guess is where its connection to the Coppola filmography begins and ends.  It tells the story of Jack Powell (Robin Williams), a sweet, energetic little ten-year old boy who, because of a severe aging defect, has the outward appearance of… well, Robin Williams.  The film deals with his decision to stop his secluded home schooling and enter into the dangerous world of public school alongside normal children.  He’s regarded as a freak at first, but his charm and innocence soon win over his classmates.  Ultimately, he conquers the emotional wreckage of his defect and manages to live a full, albeit very short life.

I’ll say this—the performances are as good as they can be.  I honestly don’t mind Robin Williams at all, and I love it when he subverts his image with darker roles, like in DEATH TO SMOOCHY, INSOMNIA, and ONE HOUR PHOTO (all of which, fascinatingly, were released in 2002).  Williams’ hyperactive style of delivery is appropriate for the role of an overgrown ten year old boy, and it is chiefly Williams that makes the movie as (infuriatingly) touching as it is.  You may disagree with the quality of his performance, but you can’t deny that it was at least perfect casting.

Diane Lane, who worked with Coppola before on THE OUTSIDERS (1983) RUMBLE FISH (1984) and THE COTTON CLUB (1984), plays Jack’s caring mother Karen.  Lane has that whole “unconditional love of a mother” thing down pat, even when she looks like she could be her son’s younger sister.  Dedicated to making his short life the happiest it can be, she indulges in rowdy games with Jack, and convincingly appears anxious when the outside world begins to exert its will over her son.  Her performance is easily the best thing about this film, and its been a special experience to see her grow from innocent teenager, to confident sex kitten, to finally a courageous mother through the course of Coppola’s work.

Brian Kerwin plays Brian Powell, Jack’s dad, and does a fine job without particularly standing out.  Bill “Pudding Pops” Cosby is Lawrence Woodruff, Jack’s cool-as-a-cucumber private tutor and de facto best friend (at least at the beginning of the film).  Jennifer Lopez, who has had the terrible misfortune of being both in this film and GIGLI (2003), is sweet and effective in her role of Miss Marquez, Jack’s homeroom teacher and first crush.  And then there’s Fran Drescher, who plays a local mother named DD.  DD quickly gets the hots for Jack, ignorant of the fact that he’s mentally and emotionally ten years old, and unwittingly initiates him into the very adult world of sex.  Drescher in general irritates me, as a person—that grating smoker’s voice with that terrible Atlantic City accent, and that fucking laugh of hers.  I can hear it right now in my head, and it’s making me grind my molars together.

To lens this incredibly milquetoast-looking film, Coppola works for the first time with Director of Photography John Toll (who would go on to shoot Terrence Malick’s gorgeous THE THIN RED LINE two years later).  Shot on 35mm film in the standard Academy 1.89:1 aspect ratio, JACK is full of natural, bright primary colors that evoke a sunny, optimistic demeanor.  There’s no particular style to the film, and there’s absolutely no experimentation—everything is presented exactly as straightforward as it can be.  This makes for a very visually dull film, but it’s appropriate for the subject matter.  Coppola’s frequent Production Designer, Dean Tavoularis, returns to craft a childlike, nostalgic aesthetic.  The film’s Bay Area setting helps towards this end immensely by providing plentiful clean, golden sunlight to shower upon Coppola’s subjects.

Michael Kamen is on scoring duty in his first collaboration with Coppola.  In what is probably the most conventional element in a heavily conventional film, Kamen’s score has that typical “kid’s movie” orchestral sound—a sound that I’ve personally dubbed “shenanigans!”.  You’ll know it when you hear it.  Bryan Adams shows up as well, lending an overly earnest theme song to the film that I guess fits with the tone, if indeed there is a tone at work here.

JACK was released to abysmal reviews and poor box office receipts, and Coppola’s career hasn’t really been able to recover from it.  I know I’ve spent the better part of 2 pages shitting all over the film, so I’ll try to think of the positives, in the spirit of Jack Powell’s boundless optimism.  The look of the film is appealing in a charming, inoffensive way.  The performances are surprisingly effective, tapping into the burdens of adult life that they feel they must protect Jack from.  There isn’t an ounce of cynicism to be had on Coppola’s part.  And he also reigns in his at-times overbearing desire to fly in the face of convention to deliver a sweet, simple story about a misunderstood little boy who’s not big enough for his britches.  JACK is generic and bland, yes, but is the world any worse off because it exists?

Are we just being reactionary when we say that JACK is the worst film ever made?  Maybe.  Probably.  I agree that Coppola defied our expectations of him by choosing to tackle this film, but hasn’t he been defying our expectations his entire career?    He’s proven himself as a competent (if not formidable) filmmaker in just about every genre except science fiction, so why is a family film any different?  By rejecting this film, we judge Coppola for failing to live up to our assumptions of his character, but we’re also not allowing him to be who he really is.

Maybe that’s why we hate JACK so much: we’re completely missing the point.

JACK is currently available on standard definition DVD.

Credits:

Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Fuchs, Ricardo Mestres

Written by: James DeMonaco, Gary Nadeau

Director of Photography: John Toll

Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis

Editor:  Barry Malkin

Composer: Michael Kamen