A.M. Homes is known around the literary community as a bit of an expert when it comes to writing about suburban families. Nearly all of her novels and story collections focus on the issues facing the modern suburban family. Jack is actually one of two of her books to be made into a cable television-original. The other, The Safety of Objects, tried to turn her first short story collection into a Short Cuts-esque film starring Glenn Close and Dermot Mulroney. Short Cuts it is not, but The Safety of Objects does have a few shining moments. Jack may not fare quite as well with Stockard Channing and Ron Silver in the starring roles, but the charisma of a young actor named Anton Yelchin does manage to give the film a silver lining.
Jack, for which Homes wrote the screenplay, is based on her first novel about a young boy struggling with adolescence that finds out that the reason his parents got divorced is because his father is gay. To put it mildly, that's a whole lot for someone just about to turn sixteen to take in. Couple that with the fact that Jack is probably one of the most eccentric teenagers you're ever likely to meet. He's intelligent and mature beyond his years with an oddball sense of wit and a dry, self-deprecating tone. Toss in a pretty girl who also has a gay father and a best friend whose family appears, on the surface, to be perfect in just about every way, and you've got yourself a very strange little community. This, my loyal readers, is A.M. Homes territory.
So when Showtime Entertainment decided to make Jack into a Showtime Original film, who better to adapt the novel into a screenplay than Homes herself, right? Well, not necessarily. While I absolutely adore her books, A.M. Homes adapts her first novel into a screenplay that is just a bit too much like a novel. Her knack for description, character, and dialogue is great, but it doesn't exactly translate that well to the screen. Jack relies too heavily on the main character's voiceover (which I think could have been very effective in the film if it had been used more sparingly), and there are just a few scenes that, as you're watching them, seem to want to sit on the page rather than on the screen. You can actually hear yourself saying, "Wow, this would be great in a novel, but doesn't exactly work in the film." Homes does, on the other hand, bring her sense of humor and charm to the film. Those touches are what keep the script from being a complete failure.
What keeps Jack from being a waste of time, however, are the performances of cast. Stockard Channing has got this part down pat by now. She's been in so many television movies playing that same motherly character that she now has the ability to bring a little bit of nuance to each one. Her subtle variations are what make her worth watching in every film that seems to place her in the same exact part as her previous work. Her relationship with Jack is believable and heartfelt, as is her complicated relationship with Jack's father. Ron Silver plays Jack's father with a sense of loyalty both to his son and to his newfound sexuality. It's clear that he loves Jack and, at one time, he loved Jack's mother. There are certainly some clichéd moments and schmaltz to be found in these performances as well, but Channing and Silver do their best to rise above the sub-par script.
The real star of Jack, however, is relative newcomer Anton Yelchin. Find me a perfect young actor to play the oddball character of Jack, and I'll be very surprised. Yelchin looks like he was born to play the troubled, eccentric teenager with the gay father. His dry sense of humor and intelligence show through the character, and his deadpan delivery is absolutely spot-on. There are moments when Yelchin turns from a completely calm, introspective character into a raving lunatic that would jump straight into a lake when his father confesses his newfound sexuality. The fact remains, however, that Yelchin makes it work. He makes Jack feel authentic and absurd in a way that many young actors would never have been able to achieve. For a film that completely hinges on finding the perfect actor for its main character, Jack finds the absolute right choice in Anton Yelchin.
There are times when these Showtime Original movies (or any cable television-original movies for that matter) have a tendency to fall into movie-of-the-week schmaltzfests. Jack treads awfully close to that line at times, but the strength of the cast and the original story (mind you, I didn't say script) by A.M. Homes are what make the film a bit more worthy of your time. Anton Yelchin is a great find, Stockard Channing brings new twists to a character she's played before, and the supporting cast of characters is equally strong. Jack may, ultimately, lay it on a bit thick, but there is definitely some heart and humor to be found in the film.