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By Michael Atkinson
By all accounts, Francis Ford Coppola is putting some pretty good wine into the bottle at his vineyard in Napa. Let's hope so. Because the filmmaking career of one of America's great directors has now hit the bottom of the barrel, and his future may lie entirely in viniculture.
In watching Jack, admirers of the man who gave us the Godfather films and Apocalypse Now will likely feel more sadness than scorn, as well as a pang of the absurd. If Orson Welles had been reduced, say, to cranking out Gidget movies, or Picasso had wound up illustrating technical manuals, the sinking feeling in the audience could scarcely be more keen. Unbelievably, Coppola's new movie is a ticky-tacky sitcom in which hammy Robin Williams plays a ten-year-old, complete with fart and burp jokes, overgrown playground antics and the usual end-of-picture apothegms about embracing life while it lasts. It's a sunny, lamebrained entertainment, and if there's some dark, bitter joke buried deep inside about how certain Hollywood careers, like lives, can get cut short by trouble and fate, it's not discernable. Thank God for small favors.
Coppola's downward spiral since his personal apocalypse during the disastrous making of Apocalypse Now has been amply chronicled. But neither the artsy murk of Rumblefish nor the empty bombast of Dracula could prepare us for a Francis Ford Coppola film in which the relentlessly hormonal Williams, face screwed into preteen fright and clutching a teddy bear to the front of his jammies, leaps into the bed of his on-screen "parents" because he's just had a nightmare. You pray for the Tattaglia brothers to burst into the room and slaughter all three of them with big knives.
Quite apart from the familiar feature-length cliche that rules Jack--big boys are all children at heart--this mutant Coppola film tries to push buttons and jerk tears in all the movie-of-the-week ways: 1. The disease from which Williams's little Jack Powell is suffering is pure Hollywood--he's growing up at four times the normal rate (not fast enough, unfortunately, to have him die of old age in the first reel). 2. Our six-foot hairy hero, who's in the fifth grade, can't adjust to the little classroom desks; his classmates can't adjust to him. 3. In the end, the picture flashes forward to Jack's high school graduation, where Williams gets the opportunity to give the stirring class valedictory as what appears to be a 72-year-old. The implicit message: Don't bother looking into graduate schools, pal.
It's pretty clear, given the ongoing success of pictures from Big to Phenomenon, that the movie industry has been thoroughly Gump-ized. Which is to say that the public can't get enough of boys-in-men's-bodies, ersatz geniuses at work in the crania of village idiots and sticky sentimentality parading around in the baby clothes of authentic innocence. When a moviemaker like Coppola gets hooked into the loop, you know the end is near.
It wouldn't do to dwell on Jack's sorry details, except to say that Bill Cosby, still acting by numbers, pops up as little Jack's private tutor, all the better to unload the picture's most clanging aphorisms about maturity, joy and seizing the moment. Little Adam Zolotin plays Big Jack's pint-sized best friend from Miss Marquez's fifth-grade homeroom. And Diane Lane and Brian Kerwin, both Coppola veterans, are stuck with the thankless task of portraying the freakish kid's baffled mom and dad--and withering under the Williams assault. If writers James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau had any sense, they would show how annoying it is to have to buy a kid new shoes every two weeks, but they leave that to our imaginations in favor of having the parents play the pictures of understanding. At ten, their little Jack has a beard like a dock worker's, but they agonize over the merits of letting him go on a sleepover.
Heard enough? This is a sad piece of business, start to finish.
So. Has the time really come for Francis Ford Coppola's artistic obituary? Maybe not. Maybe he'll rise from limbo and make another Conversation or a Godson. But after leaving Jack, I couldn't help thinking of the aged and stooped Don Vito Corleone, the survivor of many violences and bereft of all his powers, sitting in that sunny vegetable garden on the last afternoon of his life, his glass of wine close at hand. But Coppola's face was superimposed over Brando's.
Screenplay by James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. With Robin Williams, Adam Zolotin, Bill Cosby, Diane Lane and Brian Kerwin.
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