Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
This is a first for “Smith’s Verdict.” I’ve changed my mind about certain movies over time, but this is the first time I’ve had to revise a negative review and make it a positive one. And it’s not a movie I expected to change my mind about either—Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack.” But recently, I was able to rent the DVD for free at a local library in Conway, Arkansas, and I watched it for the parts I liked (I did acknowledge, in the original review, parts I liked about it), and then something strange happened: I found myself watching the whole thing, from beginning to end…then I watched it again…and then a third time all the way through. And that’s when I realized—there was more for me to like about it than I thought, enough for me to write this now-positive review of a movie that I know a lot of people hate and that even I took some shots at in the other review.
“Jack” is about a 10-year-old kid whose growth disorder causes him to appear four times his actual age, causing him to look about 40. Played by Robin Williams, Jack Powell has led a very sheltered life by his loving parents, especially his mother (played very well by Diane Lane), kept mostly out of society and out of public school. But his private tutor, Mr. Woodruff (Bill Cosby in a nice small role), suggests that maybe he’s ready to join the 5th grade and be with other kids his age. Reluctantly, the parents agree, and so Jack begins school, where of course he is seen as a freak because of his adult appearance who towers over all the other kids, is hairier than most of the kids’ fathers, and breaks his desk on his first day in class. But some cool 10-year-olds realize they can use Jack to their advantage in a schoolyard game of basketball, and they also discover they can use him to fool parents into thinking he’s the school principal. And soon enough, he’s invited to join their treehouse club because he looks old enough to buy them Penthouse magazine.
Yes, “Jack” was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and maybe that’s what caused people to be distracted while watching this movie, because they expected something more than this. It’s like Roger Ebert said in his review of Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money”—“If this movie had been directed by someone else, I might have thought differently about it because I might not have expected so much.” It’s like comparing it to directors’ previous work instead of seeing it as a movie even of itself. I think Coppola just liked making any kind of movie—it’s not like he wasn’t allowed to make a comedy-drama for Disney, starring Robin Williams. “Jack” is well-directed, and Coppola keeps his actors in check (good for comedic actors such as Williams, Cosby, and Fran Drescher), and the film is well-shot with a few Coppola trademarks (fast-moving clouds, POV shots, and a couple others I may have missed). It just happens to be in a sentimental comedy-drama, but I think it’s a good one. “Jack” does a very good job of balancing comedy and drama, as the second half of this film confronts Jack’s mortality, as it should; first you have fun while setting up characters and make us like them, and then you give us the inevitable by easing us into it.
But the first half has its moments of sadness as well, such as when Jack is starting school and, at one point, accidentally breaks his desk as he sits in it. I know a lot of people saw this as a predictable joke, but I don’t think it was necessarily intended as a joke. In context, it’s more upsetting than it is funny, because everyone is laughing at him, not with him. Jack’s status as an outcast only grows until he’s ultimately welcomed on the basketball court by the other boys, and then he has friends and feels like he’s living life the way he wanted to. When the film reaches the back half, Jack has realized how short his life is and must learn to accept it so he can live like everyone else. Nowhere is that clearer than in the ending of the film in which Jack has graduated high school, now looks like an old man, and gives a speech about how he is ready to accept his fate now he has led a full life and acknowledges everyone else to do the same. “Jack” doesn’t take the easy way out; sure, we don’t see him die, but we know he doesn’t have that much longer to live after the movie’s story is finished. We can accept it because he did accept it, and that makes for a touching, heartbreaking resolution by itself.
The film is also very well cast, thanks to Coppola’s usual casting director, Fred Roos (how often do you see a mention of a casting director in a review?). Robin Williams is brilliantly cast as Jack. He’s a master of body language and perfectly captures what it’s like to be a 10-year-old in a 40-year-old man’s body. Watch his hands, watch his head movements, notice his vocal inflections, and you can see Williams really working it here, as if he channeled all the way back to when he was 10. It’s a performance up there with Tom Hanks in “Big” or Judge Reinhold in “Vice Versa.” There are a few instances where he does step out of character and into Williams’ usual adult standup persona, and it can be a little distracting, but mostly he’s excellent in the role.
The supporting cast is pretty solid; I admire the acting in this film. Diane Lane has a difficult role to pull off, as the loving, concerned mother of a boy she knows people don’t accept right away. She’s not a bad person, and she knows some of the things she does isn’t fair; everything she does is for the wellbeing of her son. Bill Cosby is suitably soft-spoken as the tutor and gives a well-written speech to Jack, describing him as “a shooting star.” “You’re a shooting star amongst ordinary stars,” he says. “A shooting star passes quickly, but while it’s here, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever want to see.” Brian Kerwin, as Jack’s dad, doesn’t have as many good moments as Lane’s mother character does, but he does solid work as well. Jennifer Lopez is very good as Jack’s caring teacher. The actors playing the kids are all excellent, especially Adam Zolotin as Jack’s best friend Louie and Todd Bosley as a geeky kid who steals a few scenes here or there. And then there’s Fran Drescher as Louie’s trampy mother who makes her moves on Jack without realizing how old he really is (and I’m guessing she never does)…okay, so I still don’t think this subplot works very well, but oddly enough, I don’t mind her as much as I did before. She’s not that obnoxious here.
Now, I’m going to take a moment to look through my original, negative review and go through my criticisms one by one and see if I can respond to them now. Let’s see…I can now call it “an engaging drama” which I couldn’t call it before…I don’t think it’s “one of the clumsiest lost opportunities I’ve ever seen” as it does a lot with both comedy and drama…”The low point of the movie is a subplot involving Louie’s trampy mother…[the scene in which she meets Jack who poses as the principal] is uncomfortable with the misunderstandings…[the bar sequence] doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie. Take it (and Fran Drescher) out of the movie, and you wouldn’t miss a thing.” Well, I’ve already said I don’t Fran Drescher as much as I did before, and now I think I’ll defend the “principal” scene on the grounds that I think it works okay because Williams still plays it like a 10-year-old kid and it’s mildly amusing, and I’ll defend the bar scene in the sense of Jack feeling like he doesn’t belong in the adult world after he believes he doesn’t belong in the kid world either. But come on, did they really have to throw in a bar fight? And maybe I could’ve done without the whole thing about Drescher hitting on Jack and never finding out who he really is.
Then there’s the scene in which Jack asks out his teacher to a school dance and she has to turn him down. That was the part I criticized the most because I didn’t know how to feel. Well…I think it works fine now. It’s handled delicately and Jennifer Lopez plays it in an endearing manner, and it’s a rather heartbreaking moment.
Oh jeez, sometimes I can’t believe my own writing. Now I found the part in the original review where I wish “Jack” focused on Jack’s mortality. I just went into two-paragraph detail about how the film handles Jack’s mortality well enough that it’s effective and satisfying, so it’s best to say I didn’t pay enough attention to the movie to begin with.
I can’t dislike “Jack” anymore. I think the film is cute. Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s sad, other times it’s endearing, and only a few times did I find it annoying. “Jack” isn’t a great movie, and maybe it could’ve benefitted from a few scenes in which the ones learn more about girls their own age after reading Penthouse magazine and being curious about the opposite sex or, if writers James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau were really risky, Jack could’ve had a relationship with a girl his age (ew, that would mean Robin Williams and a pre-teenage actress have to play a 5th-grade couple; never mind). But I do think “Jack,” as it is, is quite good. It’s good-natured, it has effective moments of drama, it’s acted wonderfully, it’s funny, and I’m now glad I have more than a few good scenes to enjoy next time I watch it. And thus presents the last time Smith’s Verdict shall be taken seriously.