Coppola: Jack (1996)

Jack is possibly the strangest film of Coppola’s career – the kind of “children’s” movie that could only have been made in the 1990s, with a borderline creepy premise, that somehow turned into one of the most heartfelt and emotional reckonings of Coppola’s entire late period. For those who weren’t traumatised by it as children, the script focuses on Jack, played by Robin Williams, a child whose cells develop at ten times the normal rate. Born prematurely to parents Karen (Diane Lane) and Brian (Brian Kerwin), Jack has an adult body by the time he is ten, which make it difficult for him to socialise with “children” his own age. Luckily, he has a mentor in the form of Lawrence Woodruff, played – eerily – by Bill Cosby, who helps him build up the confidence to finally go to school. There, he is helped along the way by Miss Marquez, played by Jennifer Lopez, and develops a friendship with Louis Durante, played by Adam Zolontin. Louis introduces Jack to his mother, Dolores, played by Fran Drescher, as the school principal, which allows the two “boys” to get up to all kinds of mischief on her watch.

Weird premise aside, part of what makes Jack so striking is prefigured in the opening scene, which takes place on the night of Jack’s conception. While we never really find out why Jack ages so quickly, this brief backstory gives some clue as to the reason why this story is so resonant for Coppola in particular, since on the night that Jack is conceived, Karen and Brian go to a fancy-dress party as Dorothy and Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Coppola opens with this party, which features a whole range of people from Karen and Brian’s generation dressed up as characters from classic Hollywood movies. Since it’s a party, though, all of these costumes are given an irreverent, ironic, 90s touch – a series of classic film tropes and characters played as farce. Taken in the context of Coppola’s broader career, this feels like a pivotal moment of auteurist exhaustion and resignation – the moment at which Coppola gave up trying to live up to the heights of his Hollywood forbears, and his own achievements in the 70s, instead contenting himself to construct cinema on a more intimate and emotional scale.

Since Jack is conceived in the same classical cinematic milieu as Coppola himself, his condition often seems like a vehicle for Coppola to consider his own premature genius as an auteur, which by all accounts peaked too soon, leaving him with four decades (and counting) to try and rival the grand visions of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now. For that reason, Jack often feels like a personification of Coppola’s late work, and an embodiment of all his auteurist aspirations, giving the film quite a poignant and plangent tone that sits oddly alongside its whacked-out premise. Just as Jack has lived an abbreviated personal life, so Coppola experienced a compressed professional life, which is perhaps why the guidance Cosby’s character gives Jack ultimately seems designed and destined for Coppola himself: “Nature has given us all an internal clock…your son’s seems to be ticking faster than usual.”

Of course, that also means that Jack is the film where Coppola first directly confronts the grief of losing his son Gian-Carlo to a speedboating accident just before Gardens of Stone, although this deeper sorrow tends to predominate more in the second half of the film. Over the first half, Jack plays mainly as comedy, as Coppola sets out to explore all the different ways in which Robin Williams is suited for this particular role. As someone who grew up in the 90s, I have a tendency to lump a certain kind of saccharine Williams vehicle in the same basket, so in my mind Jack was on a par with Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man and the other more forgettable films he made over the decade. Rewatching Jack, however, I was amazed at how well this role suited his comic persona – not just his ability to play a big child, but his skill at capturing the wistful and melancholy side of childhood as well. While Jack is still often lumped with Williams’ more mawkish roles, it’s really one of his most beautiful, and one of the best casting decisions he ever accepted, allowing him to burrow right to the core of his comic self.

Specifically, Williams is often best in roles where he is uncomfortable in his own skin, or when he is squeezed into awkward bodily positions, from the off-kilter body language of Popeye to the cross-dressing of Mrs. Doubtfire – roles where he needs a running internal monologue to remind him how to navigate the world around him. As a result, he also tends to work best in roles where his interactions are tentative, hesitant and vulnerable enough to bring out the trademark quaver in his voice – the ventriloquial drone that makes him a master at talking out the side of his mouth. To that end, Coppola delays showing us Jack as an adult for most of the first half here, which means that we hear Williams’ trademark delivery long before we see him, as Jack spends most of his time peeking out windows and hiding in cardboard boxes.

Since Coppola’s auteurist anxieties are openly addressed in Jack – and since they’re contained and embodied by Jack himself – the film is considerably gentler and more relaxed than virtually any other in his career, especially when Jack does finally appear. In that sense, Jack is diametrically opposed to the histrionic auteurism of Dracula, since Coppola now seems to have let go of his need to be a high concept director, or to recover the scope and scale of his heyday. For that reason, you can feel Coppola’s simple pleasure in filming here more than in almost any other feature in his career, while he also seems to feel less pressure to distinguish himself from the 90s, or from fashion cues and music styles that date his own golden era. One of the charming things about Jack, then, is that it’s a brilliant study in 90s style, which works quite organically with the premise, since at this time it was considered cool for kids to dress like little adults, in precocious clothes that were slightly too big. No surprise, then, that this baggy 90s style peaks around the basketball court, where Jack’s adult dimensions turn out to be a major asset for his team mates: “We’re going to change your name from Jack to Shaq.”

Since the film is so relaxed, it’s also pretty fun when Jack is trying to pass an an adult. Lots of Williams’ best adult characters are themselves trying to be seamless and convincing as an adult – or even an adult human, as in the case of Mork and Mindy – so it never feels entirely unbelievable that Jack is genuinely ten years older. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Coppola is able to tap into the weird precocity that children possessed in 90s cinema, along with the weirdly risqué adult content that was included in lots of 90s childrens’ cinema. Watching the film, I realised, vividly, that there was much less differentiation between adult and childhood “content” when I was growing up – and that “family entertainment” was much broader and less discriminating than it is today, resulting in films whose address and tone was quite odd.

This is where the weirder side of Jack starts to set in, since it’s often very unclear whether this is a film directed or adults at children. Time and again, Coppola plays around with childish and adult gazes in ways that were both unsettling and normalised at this moment in the 90s, possibly because the “family friendly” marketing arm of Hollywood was so hegemonic, and could neutralise even the most risqué content with a few clearly recognisable “wholesome” cues. From the very opening, Coppola foregrounds this weird space between childish and adult gazes – we start with Jack peering out his bedroom window, and throwing out a fake eyeball to scare the local kids, while getting his main vicarious experience of the outside world from his father Brian, who works with scantily-clad women on fashion shoots. The weirdest moment occurs, though, when Louis encourages Jack to flirt with his mother Dolores, who remains completely unaware that she is going out on a date with her son’s ten-year-old friend.

These spaces between the childhood and adult world often feel like a spiritual sequel to Peggy Sue Got Married, but from the perspective of the people Peggy Sue visited, since Jack also feels like a visitor from the future – or at least someone living in a different timeline. This becomes particularly pronounced when he starts school, since he seems to be living in one timeframe in class and another at home. The more time he spends at school, the more he resists the residual assumptions made about his adulthood even by people who know him well, forcing Cosby’s character, Lawrence, to step even more emphatically into the role of mediator. This beautifully captures the belatedness of Coppola’s own career – the feeling of finitude just when he should be settling into a late groove, as Scorsese was around this time.

That said, the second half of Jack does become considerably grimmer, as the focus shifts from Jack’s accelerated growth to his acceleration towards mortality. Once again, the premise works quite poignantly to capture the way that a severe illness can force children to become adults too early, and to glimpse the pain of the adult world too early, which is perhaps why the pain now feels more directly drawn from Coppola’s trauma at losing his son Gian-Carlo. The sense of loss percolates through all his films from Gardens of Stone onwards, but this is the first place where he confronts it directly, although the death of Mary Corleone – played by his own daughter Sofia Coppola – at the conclusion of the Godfather trilogy comes close. As Coppola comes to terms with his loss of auteurist control, this even more traumatic loss of parental control comes to the surface, resulting in one of the most heartfelt and affecting sequences in his entire filmography, buried at the back end of one his most incongruous films.

Of course, Jack remains a comedy, at least officially, but Coppola can never quite recover the comic tone after Jack realises that he’s going to age prematurely. The biggest comic set piece of the second half takes place when Jack visits “Memories Nightclub,” a swinging hotspot in his local town, but even the hijinks here are set against a continuous, mournful refrain of “In the Still of the Night,” while the comedy gradually shifts into a child’s panic at being cast adrift in an alien adult world. In a sense, this comic set piece just reiterates the pain of losing a child, and a child losing their own childhood too soon, as if Coppola were using “Memories Nightclub” to try and visualise the strange space that Gian-Carlo now occupies in his own life, memories and body of work. Following this scene, we start to see echoes of both The Outsiders (train whistles in the distance) and Rumble Fish (expressionist storms over Jack’s house) – and Jack is where thse two Hinton adaptations finally converge, as Coppola mines them both for some total vision of doomed youth that now has tragic personal resonances.

For all the weirdness of the premise, then, Jack is an emotional pinnacle in Coppola’s career, while the final scene, when Jack arrives at graduation in a seventy-year old body, may be the single most affecting self-portrait Coppola ever crafted. Addressing the studentx, Jack tells them that “when we come to this point in our lives, we try to stop thinking about the bad times, keep thinking about the good times and think about the future – in the end, none of us have very long on this earth.” Jack is talking to them about graduation, but really speaking about his own death, and both timelines coalesce in the beautiful final shot of Jack and his classmates heading off in a car down a winding road, fifty years between their bodies, as Coppola formally dedicates the film to Gian-Carlo before the final credits role. This is possibly the most emotional ending in Coppola’s career – and the end of something in his career as well, bringing a new kind of closure and acceptance in the face of the two most traumatic events in his life: the premature devolution of his career and the premature death of his son.

After so much auteurist agon, there’s something profound about this ending – it’s the finale of a director with nothing to prove, ironically paving the way for one of his most relaxed and accomplished latter-day films with The Rainmaker a year later. While his late work is often very engaging, and frequently ingenious, they’re rarely emotionally affecting in the same way as his classic work, so it’s incredibly cathartic to see Coppola digging deep in his own personal history as he does here. I’ve noticed that 90s kids often remember the tone of Jack with a pang twenty-five years later, but even so the emotional intensity really took me by surprise here, and possibly also took Coppola by surprise, so naturally and organically does it emerge.

Nevertheless, it also wouldn’t be true to Jack to not remember it as a high water mark of 90s weirdness as well – especially the weird space between children’s film and adult film. This weirdness tends to coalesce around the treehouse where Jack and Louis hang out with their friends. In the gross-out centerpiece of the film, Jack and his buddies try to can a fart, talk in detail about girls’ bodies, eat a revolting concoction of pasta, dirt, sardines and live worms, and pretend to swallow their vomit, before Jack pulls out a copy of Penthouse that he bought by passing as an adult. When Bill Cosby shows up as Jack’s mentor, and the treehouse collapses under his weight, the tableau is complete, as Coppola rains down a chaos of abject imagery that’s meant to be funny to both children and adults – and the strangeness of that combination is also part of what makes Jack so striking some twenty-five years later as well.

About Billy Stevenson (888 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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