The movie Jack directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Robin Williams in the title role was released in 1996, eight years after the release of Big starring Tom Hanks. Both movies deal with a young male protagonist who physically ages beyond his chronological age; however, while Josh Baskin in Big wishes to become older and magically ages twenty years overnight, Jack Powell in Jack is born with a medical condition that physically ages him four times faster than his chronological age. Big explores the desire to be older coupled with the belief that better times will occur at the next age milestone; Jack explores how to appreciate life since no one really knows how long he or she has to life it to the fullest.
Jack opens with Mr. Powell and a barely-showing pregnant Mrs. Powell attending an adult-version Halloween party. As the conga line circles the dance floor, Mrs. Powell’s belly looks more pregnant with each lap until she goes into labor suddenly pregnant with a full-term baby boy. The film cutely acknowledges the leap from reality to fantasy through Mrs. Powell’s costume: with her feet in the stirrups, Mrs. Powell is only visible from the knees down wearing striped stockings and red glittered high heels, much like the
After much testing, the doctors announce that infant Jack is perfectly healthy but growing at a rate four times faster than normal. Any viewer not willing to suspend disbelief at this point should stop watching. Although Roger Ebert dismisses the medical condition as fiction and Owen Gleiberman describes the condition as “mysterious,” the trivia page on IMDB suggests that the condition was inspired by Werner Syndrome that is characterized by “unusually accelerated aging (progeria) [. . . and] is typically recognized by the third or fourth decades of life, [but] certain characteristic findings are present beginning during adolescence and early adulthood.”
As Roger Ebert points out, “Jack brings [. . .] poignancy, because the situation isn't caused by magic, but by medical reasons; it's obvious Jack may not turn 20.” Every mother watching can relate to Mrs. Powell’s decision to keep Jack home from school, to protect him from any teasing, and to keep him with her at all times so that she can cherish their time together. The film jumps forward ten years; Jack has a tutor (played by Bill Cosby) and all his free time is spent with his parents. Mom plays hide-and-seek and laser gun wars with Jack, which is an interesting visual as the forty-year-old body of a ten-year-old son plays rough-and-tumble games with his thirty-two-year-old mother who is trying to act like a ten-year-old boy. Obviously, Robin Williams is in his element in this role; he is the perfect choice for a ten-year-old trapped in an older body. Eventually, all the men—Jack, Dad, and the tutor—convince Mom that it’s time for Jack to attend public school. Jack attends Nathaniel Hawthorne Elementary School, which could be a wink to the English majors in the audience who should know that Hawthorne wrote the short story “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” about a group of elderly adults who are given water from the fountain of youth and de-age. As shown in the trailer linked in the opening line, Jack’s first day of school is fraught with slapstick hijinks, such as a forty-year-old body not fitting in a desk designed for a fifth grader, and the requisite sideways glances and teasing on the playground. A few days later, Jack proves his worth as the tallest kid during a game of basketball during recess; suddenly everyone sees Jack’s duality as a positive.
The movie coasts through the fun times: Jack becoming best friends with Louie and the other neighborhood boys; the gang hanging out in a treehouse having farting contests, and the ultimate reason to have a friend who looks forty, Jack buying Penthouse for the guys. The second treehouse scene, in which the gang invites the one adult that they trust to be kidlike, Jack’s tutor Mr. Woodruff. While having a raucously good time (that is best viewed), with Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush playing on the television in the background, the treehouse begins to shake and crack. The final weight that causes the treehouse to collapse is a butterfly landing on the windowsill, hence the butterfly effect (a seemingly inconsequential event has far-reaching or long-lasting effects). Another wink at those audience members who recognize this reference.
The duality, however, also causes internal conflict for Jack. As his classmates share their “What I Want to be When I Grow Up” essays, Jack grasps that his time is running out; one girl states that she wants to get married at age twenty-eight; Jack does the calculation and realizes that his body would be 112 years old when his chronological age would be twenty-eight. Since having a forty-year-old body makes it difficult to ask a ten-year-old girl to the dance, Jack turns to his sympathetic fifth-grade teacher (played by Jennifer Lopez) as a potential love interest in an attempt at normalcy. Jack explains to Miss Marquez that “you look just like me.” Unfortunately, Jack has misconstrued her attempts to help him fit in, and her rejection is particularly stinging. To make matters worse, as Jack flees the classroom, the rapid aging process catches up to him causing an attack of angina that lands him in the emergency room.
After being told by the doctor that Jack’s internal clock is running out of time, Mrs. Powell unilaterally decides that Jack should stop attending school. In an act of rebellion, Jack uses his premature aging to his benefit for the first time; he sneaks out of the house and goes to the bar where Louie’s single mother hangs out. He first copies the other lonely single men at the bar by drowning his sorrows with alcohol; after Louie’s mom arrives, he copies the other men on the dance floor in an attempt to act like an adult. Unfortunately, the alcohol and the unfamiliarity with adult behavior results in a bar fight between Jack and a man he keeps bumping into. Jack is arrested and then bailed out by Louie’s mom, but Jack has decided that his mother was right, after all, and he chooses to stay out of school.
Every classmate, even the bullies, tries over time to convince Jack to return, but Jack chooses self-pity and wallowing. Mr. Woodruff returns to tutor but quickly decides to leave because Jack is not interested in education and, as a result, nor of living. Mr. Woodruff leaves Jack with this thought: “Do you know why I like to teach children? Because they don’t get so revved up in being an adult, so I can remember there are other things important in life, like riding a bike or playing in a treehouse.” Jack’s aging has reminded the adults around him how to enjoy being young-at-heart. Mr. Woodruff then compares Jack to a shooting star: a shooting star “passes quickly, but while it’s here it lights up the whole sky.” The advice from Mr. Woodruff is just as effective as all advice from Dr. Huxtable in The Cosby Show; Jack returns to school in time to hear that Louie wants to grow up to be just like his best friend Jack because Jack is “the perfect grown-up—inside, he’s just a kid.” Jack gives the normal ten-year-olds a role model to become an adult who doesn’t forget what it means to be a kid.
But Louie’s speech is only the beginning of the viewers’ tears. The film then jumps forward seven years to high school graduation. The eighteen-year-old Jack in the seventy-two-year-old body is the class valedictorian. His speech is straightforward and short because his time is short. It’s better for you to hear it than to read it, but his final advice is to “make your lives spectacular—I know I did.”
The movie always makes me cry; I would have been the mother of a two-year-old when Jack was released, but the movie doesn’t tug any less on my heart strings twenty years later now that I am the mother of two sons, almost twenty-two-years old and almost nineteen-years old. I want them to have both long lives and spectacular lives. When rewatching the movie, I tend to avoid the section of the movie that follows Jack when he is struggling with the duality of his condition probably because it is awkward and uncomfortable; I am able to suspend my disbelief and sympathize with this ten-year-old who just wants to fit in somewhere but cannot. Gleiberman describes the movie as “a syrupy comedy,” while Ebert observes that the movie “only wants to pluck the usual heartstrings and provide the anticipated payoff.” Janet Maslin states that “Jack has the egregious earmarks of a tritely inspirational story.”
However, this oversentimentality can be explained by the dedication that follows the main cast credits at the end of the movie: “For Gia, ‘When you see a shooting star. . .’” Gia is Coppola’s granddaughter and the daughter of Coppola’s late son. The wishful thinking, “If only we knew when our lives would end,” or “If we only had more than enough time” is suddenly understood. The movie Jack was made more the result of personal emotion than a carefully crafted concept. Ebert’s poignancy is not just that Jack may not live to see twenty but that none of us really knows, and that uncertainty is the part of time that is hardest to face.
Ebert, Roger. “Jack Movie Review & Film Summary” Roger Ebert. Ebert Digital LLC, 9 Aug.
1996. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
Gleiberman, Owen. “Jack Review.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, Inc. 9, Aug.
1996. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
Maslin, Janet. “Jack (1996): A Body That Grows Up Before Its Owner Does.” The New York
Times. The New York Times Company. 9 Aug. 1996. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
“Werner Syndrome.” NORD (National Organization for Rare Disorders). National Organization
for Rare Disorders. n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.