“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 6-foot hairy kid?” But he goes, entering fifth grade wearing shoes with flashing-light heels and carrying a lunch John Goodman might have trouble finishing.
Understandably, 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, in which a hairy, 6-foot 10-year-old would have an understandable advantage - 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 - conveyed through a malleable face that would do Bert Lahr proud - are subtle and believable.
In one excruciating scene, he asks his pretty teacher, Miss Marquez (Jennifer Lopez), to the dance. He kisses her - a peck on the lips - 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. But it’s too late; he’s seen the real world. 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.
There are echoes of Forrest Gump in Jack - the notion that innocence equals purity and that the boy inside a man is the man’s true essence. Williams even occasionally goes around with a plaid shirt buttoned, in a Gumpian way, up to the neck.
Adam Zolotin shines as Jack’s best friend, Louis. Bill Cosby has a congenial supporting role as Lawrence Woodruff, Jack’s tutor and mentor, and you get the feeling Cosby could have played Jack almost as well. Their final scene together is electric.
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 surreptitiously. The movie has an ethereal quality, with fast-moving clouds, enchanting music and suburban leaves that blow around as if they carry the essence of childhood away with them.
And the end is just 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.
Unlike in “Big,” there is no magic, no Zoltar machine, no going back to the comfortable pillow of Mom and Dad.
“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.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Jack” Locations: Newport, East Sprague and Showboat cinemas Credits: directed by Francis Ford Coppola; starring Robin Williams, Diane Lane, Fran Drescher, Bill Cosby, Jennifer Lopez and Adam Zolotin Running time: 1:53 Rating: PG-13