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Jack (1996)

Every other scene in Jack suggests the movie it could have been with a bit more ambition and a lot more thought. It came at the tail-end of a national fascination with body-swapping comedies—Big; Vice-Versa; 18 Again; Like Father, Like Son—and it has a real opportunity to explore the topic with some substance. Because, you see, Jack doesn’t revolve around magic fortunetellers or mysterious idols; its title character suffers from a medical condition that will essentially ensure his death by age 20. He has no chance of switching back to another body and leading a normal life; this is it for him. Sometimes, the film recognizes this, but it too often eschews genuine pathos for fart jokes.

If you remember the old trailer, you know the story: Jack Powell (Robin Williams) is growing at a rapidly accelerated rate, roughly four years to every one of a normal child. After a bizarre sequence in which Karen (Diane Lane) goes into labor after two months of pregnancy (at a Halloween party, so everybody rushes to the hospital in wacky costumes), the film cuts ahead ten years and slips into a strangely melancholic tone. Director Francis Ford Coppola realizes Jack leads a life of deep sadness and loneliness, despite having loving parents. Because of his freakish qualities, they keep him indoors most of the time. He stares longingly out the window at the normal ten-year-olds, wishing he could live that life without having the intellectual or emotional capacity to understand why he can’t. Coppola’s not afraid to express that darkness, but he’s also not afraid to throw it all away for the sake of kids farting in a coffee can.

With some gentle encouragement from his tutor, Mr. Woodruff (Bill Cosby, in a surprisingly somber extended cameo), the Powells allow Jack to start attending public school. Initially an outcast, Jack proves his worth quickly in a variety of ways: Intellectually, he’s on the same level as the other kids, but he can also buy them Penthouses, impersonate the principal when kids get in trouble, and rule the basketball court based on his size rather than his skill. The film never really acknowledges that these “friends” are abusing his naïveté, ignorance, and freakishness for their own gain. It simply decides he’s proved himself to the kids and is a genuine friend.

In two interminable sequences, the film shows Jack having a hard time getting along with his intellectual peers (although he impresses them with his farting skills and willingness to eat their secret “initiation” concoction, which involves a lot of toothpaste and Tabasco sauce, his size and weight makes their elaborate treehouse collapse) and his physical peers (in a fit of depression, Jack rushes off to a bar, where he gets drunk with a fool (a cameo from Michael McKean), almost gets it on with his best friend’s mom (another cameo from Fran Drescher), and starts a barfight with some schoolyard taunts). I understand the theoretical purpose for these sequences. They show Jack doesn’t really fit in anywhere, which again reflects Coppola’s vision of Jack’s life as a tragedy rather than a comedy. The problem is, they’re neither funny enough nor insightful enough to make the film engaging.

Between these long stretches of emptiness, Jack has numerous compelling moments. Jack’s mind hasn’t really caught up to his adult hormones. When he develops a crush on his teacher, Miss Marquez (Jennifer Lopez), he can’t understand her rejection. Meanwhile, overprotective Karen worries more about Jack abandoning her than about him getting hurt. Her husband, Brian (Brian Kerwin), tries to reassure her that everything that’s happening now is perfectly normal, but her combination of fear and sadness is one of the few moments that resonates.

The film sometimes pays lip service to Jack’s slow realization that he’s going to die long before his peers, but it dismisses these thoughts without examining them with any real depth. The elegiac tone permeating every frame of the film (even the “wacky” sequences) makes it clear that Coppola correctly thinks Jack’s story is not a happy one, but he doesn’t go nearly far enough with that tragic undercurrent. In a perfect world, Jack would be a lot more like The Elephant Man than a big, dumb studio comedy. Numerous scenes hint at the film’s almost limitless possibilities—including a scene that flash-forwards to an elderly Jack at his high school graduation—but the screenplay and the conventions of big, dumb studio comedies keep it tethered.

On the plus side, Robin Williams delivers an impressively restrained performance as Jack. Playing an adult ten-year-old seems like the sort of character begging for Williams to go a million miles over-the-top, but with few exceptions, he gets the character exactly right. He plays Jack as a shy, naïve kid who knows he has a “disability” but would rather just play and have fun like a regular kid.

Despite the performance, Jack is a mess. It had the potential to be a great (if depressing) film about the nature of life. It has moments that spark ideas for a better way to tell the story, but the film never goes far enough in the right direction. Fart jokes and sight gags of giant Robin Williams crushing a tiny elementary school desk are simply too hard to resist, I guess.

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