Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For April, we revisit both the game-changing hits and low point misses of Francis Ford Coppola. Read the rest of our coverage here.
There was a trend when YouTube first launched, one that still pops up from time to time, where a skilled editor will take a film such as Dumb and Dumber or Elf and recut the trailer as a horror film. These pet projects are amusing at first glance, and serve to highlight deeply disturbing elements of classic comedies generally played for laughs. They demonstrate the power certain filmmakers have to elicit a specific audience response often diametrically opposed to the given circumstances on screen.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack needs no such retouching or wry editing to horrify the viewer – this reprehensible, muddled, confused, misguided pile of celluloid shit is just right there, daring you to be anything other than filled with dread, sadness, and stupefied disbelief.
Jack revolves around the curious case of Jack Powell (Robin Williams), a child born seven months early due to an unnamed medical condition which causes him to age at four times the normal rate. Which is ironic due to the one hour and fifty three minute runtime passing at least four times slower than the normal rate. Time is relative, Jack is forever.
The doctors (Allan Rich and Keone Young) explain to Jack’s parents (Diane Lane and Brian Kerwin) that all the medical mumbo-jumbo aside this effectively means when Jack is ten years old, he will appear as though a forty year old man.
The audience is thrust ten years into the future, not allowed to see nor understand the next decade of Jack or his parents’ lives. Explaining and understanding the disorder are less important to Coppola than having Robin Williams regularly purchase Hustler for ten year old boys. Who cares about the emotional toll this condition takes on a family, who could possibly want to spend time understanding how the fully formed Robin Williams came to be, what shaped his personality and the way he relates to the world?
No, forget all that, we have to get to the fart jokes.
Now, dear reader, you may be wondering if this author is perhaps taking the premise of “Robin Williams is a 10 year old boy” too seriously. Perhaps this author is, but that’s because Coppola is not. The lauded director chose a tactic of having Williams’ co-stars rehearse scenes with a 10 year old stand-in, and only when Lane and Kerwin played a scene naturally with the young version of Jack would Williams take the child’s place to do the scene for cameras. The net effect of this tactic has nearly everything played with the subtlety and depth of a Saturday Night Live sketch.
The reality of Jack’s situation is either ignored or rubbed into the viewer’s face depending on the needs of any given scene. Jack had a nightmare? Well, then Williams is going to interrupt Lane and Kerwin’s bedroom escapades to crawl under the covers with his half-clothed parents, isn’t that hilarious?! Jack wants to fit in with the other boys? Better rip off the dinner scene from Hook, distribute pornography, and rip a big fart because it’s worth a few chuckles and that’s just what boys do! Jack develops a crush on his teacher (Jennifer Lopez), asks her to the dance, and is told no? Well, then Jack is going to have a heart attack, be sent to the hospital for tests, and pulled out of school because, did you forget? He’s aging at four times the normal rate and he is absolutely going to die before he ever gets a chance to really live, idiot.
Several of the despicable and utterly bananas elements of the film are firmly rooted in mid-1990s naivety, and the cultural norms of casual racism and misogyny. For instance, Jack’s group of actual 10 year-old friends (boys who all speak like they’re grizzled taxi drivers from Brooklyn and not rich white kids from Marin County) have an undefined rivalry with a group of Black and Latino boys that seems to center around the white children not being as good at basketball.
Or how the film’s score, a ferociously annoying omnipresent riff on the bad jazz that permeated every comedy from 1992 to 1997, gives no help to the viewer navigating the minefield of how to process the 39 year old Fran Drescher sticking her tongue down Williams’ throat in a seedy bar while Michael McKean cheers him on, mere moments before Williams launches into schoolyard insults with a drunk and angry bar patron.
However, more of the choices that contribute to the histrionically uneven tone are ones that Coppola made on absolute purpose. Jack’s isolation mirrors the director’s own bout with polio as a child, and the scenes of Williams staring out the window to a unknown and untouchable outside existence feel deeply personal in a way the rest of the film cannot come close to touching.
Or, for example, the Monarch butterfly which Jack watches emerging from a cocoon in the first act returns to die on Jack’s windowsill in the third act because, one can only assume, Coppola lacked the technology to physically slap viewers in the face with the scarcity of time Jack has on this earth.
Jack…is just right there, daring you to be anything other than filled with dread, sadness, and stupefied disbelief.
There is just one moment where Williams isn’t “on,” where the man himself isn’t entertaining his child co-stars, or doing a bit, or schmaltzing it up in old-age makeup, where the remarkable actor he truly can be comes through: when he questions Lane on why he doesn’t go to school. It’s a truly sweet and understated moment that hints at a movie that might have been, one that embraced the reality of our protagonist’s struggles and understanding of the world around him.
If one goes looking for answers on why Coppola felt this movie was calling him back to the director’s chair four years after Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there are no clear answers. Robin Williams was his neighbor, they were friends, they wanted to work together. On paper, Williams as a child is a slam dunk, in practice it is a philosophical nightmare. This wouldn’t be the first time Coppola was in over his head on a project, but it is absolutely the most insultingly maudlin instance of it.
This author would be remiss to leave this piece, already too long and not nearly scratching the surface of issues within Jack, without mentioning that, at the age of 13, this movie was being shot in the author’s hometown. A classmate is in the movie as a glorified extra, but one who would disappear from classes for days at a time to “go shoot with Robin.” In Novato, California in 1995 the Jack hype train was real, and this author was 1000% on board. Leaving the theater in 1996 there was a sense that something was amiss, that the movie didn’t quite work but perhaps this author was missing something. Revisiting the film two Jack Powell lifetimes later one realizes wisdom and understanding do not always come with age.
Sometimes a movie just sucks.