Jack begins with an odd sequence: A pregnant woman (Diane Lane) delivers a full-term child in the first trimester. While she gives birth, the camera switches to the infant's point of view as he emerges from the womb and sees the world through fresh eyes.
By movie's end, the appropriateness of that shift in perspective is evident. Because the child becomes Robin Williams, and the rest of the story shows the world through the eyes of Hollywood's most talented man-child.
Francis Ford Coppola's Jack, at its most skeletal, is a basic flight of poignant fancy about a 10-year-old boy with a vaguely explained disease that makes his body age at four times the normal rate. For most of the film, he is 10 in mind but 40 in body.
But the movie manages to transcend the material--mostly because of Williams and his perpetually Morkian innocence--and become a satisfying, occasionally maudlin tale of belonging, understanding the passage of time and living for the moment.
Jack Powell has never attended school because of his disorder, and the meat of the story begins when his parents decide to send him. There are trepidations.
"They make fun of the fat kid and the kid who wears glasses," says his mother. "What do you think they're going to do with the six-foot hairy kid?"
But he goes, entering fifth grade carrying a lunch John Goodman might have trouble finishing.
Jack is shunned as an object of curiosity, especially after a classroom chair splinters under his weight. But he proves himself in the definitive schoolboy's forum--pickup basketball--and is accepted into a peer group.
With a gawky body and a precocious mind, Jack is the ultimate grade-school outsider, and Williams' depictions of his pain and unexpected pleasure are subtle and believable.
In one excruciating scene, he asks his pretty teacher (Jennifer Lopez) to the dance. He kisses her and she says no, it's not right. He runs off crying, and has a decidedly unchildlike angina attack.
His parents, worried, pull him from school. Depressed, he goes to a bar, dances with a friend's divorced mother (Fran Drescher), starts a bar fight and gets arrested. Things could descend into slapstick here but manage not to.
Adam Zolotin shines as Jack's best friend, Louis. Bill Cosby has a congenial supporting role as Lawrence Woodruff, Jack's tutor and mentor.
The film initially evokes Big and portends two hours of kid-in-a-big-body jokes. They are there, some funny, some intrusive. But after about 20 minutes, Jack's inherent melancholy wins you over.
The end is heartbreaking. It skips ahead seven years--do the math--to Jack's high school graduation. He is valedictorian and, with the shuffle of age and the help of reading glasses, takes the stage for his speech.
"Make your lives spectacular," Jack exhorts his classmates. "I know I did."
Corny? Maybe. But there's love in this picture, which speaks well for it. And the message comes through as it does in other Williams characters, from Mork to John Keating in Dead Poets Society to Peter Pan in Hook: Life is fleeting. Don't suppress childlike instincts. Seize the day, or it will--not may, but will--slip through your fingers.