While some people manage to take bad-sounding ideas and turn them into good films, it's comforting to know that some ideas are so bad they're beyond redemption. Like Jack, for instance. It's about a boy who's born with a rare condition that makes him age at four times the normal rate. When he's 10, he looks like a 40-year-old man. When he's 25, his body will be 100, and thus dead. A movie about a dying 10-year-old boy sounds like a terrible idea already -- and then they cast Robin Williams to play the boy. It's as if they thought, "How can we make this worse? Hire Fran Drescher to play the woman who, thinking the boy is a grown man, makes out with him?? Done and done!"
When a screenwriter wants to satirize Hollywood, he has his fictional filmmakers come up with something like Jack. To increase the absurdity, the screenwriter might pattern his fictional big-shot director after a highly respected real-life director, someone like, say, Francis Ford Coppola, who really did direct Jack. Yes, the man who made The Godfather and Apocalypse Now also made the movie about the hairy, moribund man-child played by Robin Williams. That's like finding out that Abraham Lincoln, in addition to freeing the slaves, also murdered a hobo.
Jack's parents, the Powells (Diane Lane and Brian Kerwin), are alarmed when Mom goes into labor after only two months of pregnancy. They are even more alarmed when, despite being seven months premature, Jack emerges as a healthy, fully developed baby boy. He's a devil baby, obviously. I don't see how any other explanation is possible. Normal-looking human infant born after only eight weeks of gestation? Devil baby, every time.
But rather than throw the baby down a well or sell it to gypsies, the Powells take little Jack home and raise him. Ten years later, he's Robin Williams, doing that thing where he acts like a wise, saintly, mischievous child, i.e., exactly the same thing he does in every movie. (Williams really does seem to have the mind of a 10-year-old, though, which explains why he agreed to make Old Dogs.) Since other children would find him weird, the Powells have home-schooled Jack and isolated him from the world, which is a great strategy if you're trying to keep someone from being perceived as weird. His tutor is Mr. Woodruff, played by Bill Cosby, who for some reason has a soul patch. ("... and after we get Fran Drescher, we'll hire Bill Cosby and put a soul patch on him!") If you think people with soul patches look ridiculous anyway, wait till you see Bill Cosby with one. If you don't think people with soul patches look ridiculous, please reconsider, and then shave off your soul patch.
Jack wants to be a normal boy and go to school with the other kids, so finally his parents relent and send him to fifth grade. Things are very awkward, largely because no one tries to explain to his classmates that Jack has a condition that makes him look old even though he's only 10. I mean NO ONE. Not his teacher, Miss Marquez (Jennifer Lopez), not his parents, not the principal, not Jack himself. They just put him in the classroom and expect everything to turn out OK. It's the laissez-faire approach to child development. Everyone stares at him and wonders if he's a mentally challenged adult or just a kid with a five-o'clock shadow, or some combination of both. Then he sits at his desk and it breaks! Because not only is he big for his age, he also weighs 1,500 pounds! I guess! Later a treehouse crashes to the earth because it's full of the usual number of children, plus Jack and Mr. Woodruff. Apparently Francis Ford Coppola believes full-grown adults weigh 10 times as much as children, a notion he probably picked up from working with Marlon Brando.
After a while, Jack makes friends with some of the boys in his class, who find his height (comparative to them, anyway) useful in basketball games, and his grown-up appearance useful in buying Penthouse magazine for them and impersonating the principal when their mothers come to the school to talk about their behavioral problems. I know those sound like things I would make up to ridicule the movie, but they're really in there. One of the boys, Louie (Adam Zolotin), has an unmarried mom named Dolores, played by famed goat impersonator Fran Drescher. She flirts shamelessly with "Principal Jack Powell," who, for his part, makes no effort whatsoever to act like an adult. That's "funny," you see, because we know Jack is really just a kid, but Dolores doesn't! And in case we forget he's really just a kid, he keeps acting like one, even when he should be trying not to. Comedy!
It's somewhere around here that Jack starts to do some math and realizes that he'll be dead before he's 30, probably before he's 25, maybe even sooner if he keeps crushing desks and treehouses under his massive weight. Miss Marquez assigns an essay to the class about what they want to be when they grow up, and Jack says to himself, "What do I want to be when I grow up? Alive." Ha ha, get it? Look, if a child facing imminent death isn't funny, I don't know what is.
Depressed over being trapped between the worlds of adulthood and childhood, Jack does the logical thing, which is to walk into a bar and get drunk. Michael McKean buys him shots and talks to him about erectile dysfunction. Then Dolores shows up, dances with Jack, lets him put his hands on her butt, and kisses him. In a lot of ways, this film is just like Big, if Big were morbid and creepy and ended with the main character in old-age makeup addressing his high school graduating class as its valedictorian. That's how Jack ends, you know, with 17-year-old Jack, in his 68-year-old body, giving an inspiring speech to his classmates. "I don't have very much time these days," he says, "so I'll make it quick -- like my life." The crowd laughs appreciatively at this bon mot Jack has delivered, as eager as we are to find mirth in his tragic, fatal condition.
It's never explained whether Louie's mom learned the truth about the "man" she threw herself at, and if she did, whether it ranked among her most humiliating acts or was typical for her. Nor are we told what became of Jack after graduation night. Presumably he died very soon thereafter. That's sad, at least theoretically, but the movie wants us to take comfort in knowing that Jack led such a rich life, what with the Penthouse buying and the desk destroying and the heavy drinking. Why, he did more in 17 years than a lot of kids do in 18 years! We'll always remember you, Jack. We'll always remember what a bad idea you were.
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Eric's Bad Movies appears Thursdays at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, which is 12 years old but looks 50.