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Jumpin' Jack Flash

Blend of sweet and gross in 'Jack' hits the palate like chocolate-covered sloppy joes

By Richard von Busack

The new Francis Ford Coppola movie, Jack, does show the director's hand, from time to time. Moments of intelligence are scattered through what I saw: an interjected, natural-looking conversation between two children in a schoolyard, a playful chase lit by flashlights between a mother and child through a darkened house, or another scene of the childlike Jack (Robin Williams) getting his balance in the schoolyard. It's not as shameful a movie as it looks from the previews. At different points, Coppola demonstrates a little of what made him one of the most remarkable directors in the history of the medium, in how he painstakingly keeps the movie, which is low-key and very, very occasionally charming, from becoming the real monstrosity the premise suggests.

It was during the farting contest in a kid's treehouse that I walked out, though, because I knew the account would be balanced by a reckoning later. (It was, I found out later, a scene of Jack deep in his second childhood, a lovable old man at the high school graduation.) I can't handle the mixture of the sweet and the gross; the two together hit the palate like chocolate-covered sloppy joes.

The premise is that Jack has a special condition that causes him to grow at four times the rate of an ordinary child, so that he is 40 on the outside and 10 on the inside. His parents, who are very comfortably off (the movie is filmed in Marin County, in what looks like about $750,000 worth of house), have previously sheltered him from the outside world. But they decide, on the advice of pediatrician (a disgusted-looking Bill Cosby), to plunk him down in a schoolyard. Through his superior basketball playing--"You should change your name from Jack to Shaq," says his teacher--he's able to make new friends.

He's invited for a sleepover in the treehouse scene, where the farting contest is set, and it's there that we also deal with the disturbing question of the sexuality of a 10-year-old in a 40-year-old's body. "Have you ever had an erection?" someone asks Jack. "No, but I'm hoping for one at Christmas." I think this is supposed to be a risque moment in a movie for the whole family.

That gag, such as it is, was included for parents who remember what an erector set was. In my impression, parents are more uncomfortable with the subject of sexual expression between adults and children than any other subject you can name, and yet here is this the very adult-looking Williams handing out Penthouse to 10-year-olds. It would take a lot of innocence not to find the scene peculiar. Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens might have been able to carry the scene, to show you the naughtiness, how the kids are more interested in defying their parents than they are in looking over the airbrushing. These ersatz 10-year-olds in Jack--a squad of polished child actors, and no doubt veterans of a hundred commercials--sigh over the smut like connoisseurs.

Williams, at his best, can knock you out with the range of his delicious, speedy sarcasm; but he can also be cloying, infantile, wringing you out with his cuteness. Coppola may yet rescue himself; this is, I stress, nowhere near as bad as the Zoe sequence in New York Stories, and the director may bounce back. It's Williams I'm really worried about. What if he gets an Oscar for this horrifying schmaltz? He'll be playing parts like this for the rest of his life. Schmaltz is a word that isn't defined often; it's a Yiddish word meaning "chicken fat" and, by extension, grease or oil; you can feel like you've been soaked with it watching Robin Williams in Jack.

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro

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