Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Look Back at the Blunder of Coppola and the 20-Year-Old "Jack"

Scene from Jack
There is one stone cold fact that would take decades of unfavorable controversy to overturn: Francis Ford Coppola is one of America's greatest directors. There's no way to argue around this. Just look at The Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, or even the underrated Bram Stoker's Dracula. The man's ambitions to forward cinema through experimental style is unsurpassed. While he may be not as popular with his recent movies - a Comic Con panel for Twixt in 2011 was half empty - his legacy will never tarnish, especially as he ushers in the new generation of Coppola's from his daughter Sofia to his granddaughter Gia. Still, this may be hard to believe if your entryway into the director's work was in the 1996 family comedy/drama Jack. Now 20 years old, it's a miracle that Coppola ever recovered, but it remains a baffling dark mark on his otherwise intriguing legacy.

Having had a rough period in the 80's Coppola's 90's was spent working on more commercial films. The Godfather Part III earned him a Best Picture nomination before being relegated to an unfair legacy as a terrible film. Bram Stoker's Dracula is an aesthetic achievement that faithfully updates Bram Stoker's original text. Besides The Rainmaker from 1997, Jack was one of only four films that he made during this period, which would all culminate in a decade-long hiatus as a director. To say the least, three of these films would be tough to be considered discernibly "bad." They may be boring or problematic, but there's a cohesion in the Coppola style that is present throughout. You know what you're getting each time.

Every director has had their share of misfires. Steven Spielberg had 1941 and most recently The BFG. It's just a fact of making cinema. However, there are few as perplexing and off center as Coppola's Jack. Speaking as he was a director who made grand epics with beautiful cinematography and elegant costume and set designs, to strip it all away for Jack meant that it would at least be a departure. However, it was also one of the most puzzling failures of his career, as well as suffered from the 90's belief that Robin Williams played the man child shtick too much. Jack was the nadir of this phenomenon, especially as it incorporated a grown man looking for nudie mags and finding the essence of fart humor. To some extent, it probably influenced Tropic Thunder's recurring gag involving the uncomfortably over-the-top mentally challenged performance by Ben Stiller called Simple Jack. 

The subtext makes a little more sense than the final product. It's a story about a child with Werner syndrome; or basically he ages four times as fast as a regular human. By the time that he's 10, his body looks 40. The situation makes him home schooled by then still beloved Bill Cosby before his parents decide to let him live life in a regular school. The film does have that unfortunate truth that yes, Jack will die a young man/boy (?), but at least he'll be able to say that he enjoyed his life. If there's any faults, it's that Coppola's vision of childhood is that boys are gross and manipulative, using Jack's appearance to trick parents and get access to some, *ahem*, adult things. The issue is that Coppola's strong suit has never been comedy, and his direction looks like a bland straight-to-video release. It is so utterly bizarre that nobody in their right mind could think that this was released by Coppola - who hadn't even had that far of a creative losing streak to justify Jack's existence.

The inspiration from the film came from a place of genuine appeal. Coppola wanted to work with Williams on a film. Considering that the actor had done amazing work over the past decade in Good Morning Vietnam and The World According to Garp (to name just two), there was potential for him to balance comedy and drama in a subversive and freeing film for Coppola. The intent can be seen in what occasionally gets swept under the fart jokes. It's about mortality and the joys of childhood. It has rich themes that just happen to be poorly handled and not given justice thanks in large part to the failing of the cast (and script) surrounding Williams' prototypical performance. The sentimentality that pins the ending is also grating and becomes more problematic when you realize that this was from the director of Apocalypse Now. It would be interesting if Jack had a Hearts of Darkness-level bad production. Anything would make this film more interesting if it was somehow justified.

Thankfully, one can make the argument that everything that Coppola has done since has been better. Maybe they don't hold the impact that The Godfather does, but any filmmaker should be so lucky to have Coppola's winning streak. Still, for a film that marks the low point of his film career, it becomes hard to even distinguish it as a film that has his personal stamp. There's no real auteur approach about it, and its only legacy is that nobody will understand why Coppola made it. Even if he gave a reasonable answer, it would be hard to stomach unless it was the most obvious (the money). Still, if he were to bomb hard, at least he did it with a project that is so strikingly off and full of blandness that I doubt it will ever not be the butt of the jokes when talking about his otherwise infallible track record. He has been bad before, but never on so many misguided levels.

So why even talk about Jack on an Oscar-centric blog? The answer is pretty much that there's no direct reasoning other than that I like Coppola and feel like there's good discourse in discussing all of his work. Considering that I am one of the few defenders of The Godfather Part III, I do feel like there's some duty to note when things go wrong for auteurs of Coppola's level. In a sense, I am glad that his hiatus did lead to Sofia's wonderful directing carer. However, it's still unfortunate that Jack exists at all and is so blatantly discomforting and manipulative that it makes Joel Schumacher's Batman movies look like, well, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. I don't expect recognizing the 20th anniversary of Jack to mean anything to The Oscar Buzz, but I do want to mention it mostly to suggest that artists can recover from grand mistakes like this. Coppola's financial track record may have not, but at least it's lead to his most under the radar and interesting period for those who like indie and creative film. Twixt may be flawed, but Coppola's proposed movie tour that would splice in different scenes based on audience reaction is so revolutionary that it's a shame that it didn't lead to anything. Considering that his next film Distant Vision is his proposed last, we should respect his contributions while we can, Jack and all.

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