The movies directed by Francis Ford Coppola during the 1970s (The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II; The Conversation and Apocalypse Now) incarnated the full, glorious maturation of the American cinema. Rapt, searching, emotionally epic, these were movies etched in vivid dark colors on the canvas of American experience. But with the arrival of three pop blockbusters Jaws (1975), Rocky (1976), and Star Wars (1977) Hollywood zigzagged into fantasy and uplift, and Coppola, a filmmaker who might have been expected to buck this trend with everything he had, fell instead into his own cinematic regression. He began to craft scattershot teen fables out of S.E. Hinton novels, empty-glossy nostalgia trips like Peggy Sue Got Married, and, more recently, the soul-of-MTV horror bash Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Now he gives us Jack, a syrupy comedy starring Robin Williams as a 10-year-old boy in a man's body. The sort of ''catchy'' concept that sounds like it was dreamed up during a power breakfast at Spago, Jack has a few funny and tender moments, but it's a synthetic, rather drab movie, one that seems linked less to experience, or even to fantasy, than to other movies Big, of course, and also E.T., Mask, and Phenomenon. It's a feel-good casserole that got left in the microwave too long.
Due to a mysterious medical condition, Jack Powell (Williams) has been aging at four times the normal rate since he was in the womb. His parents (Diane Lane and Brian Kerwin) have reacted by shielding him from the world, educating him with a saintly tutor (Bill Cosby). But living in a domestic bubble hasn't made Jack a happy camper. He's desperate for friends, and he is finally given a chance to attend the fifth grade.
Arriving at school a burly, hairy man-child, Jack has to scrunch his body into a small, cramped desk. He doesn't have much more luck fitting into the boisterous bonding rites of the other kids, who tease him about his receding hairline and brand him a ''freak.'' Before long, though, he wins them over. He's an obvious asset in recess basketball games, and he seals his status during a tree-house sleep-over with the other boys, when, during one of the film's few exuberant sequences, he scarfs a gross-out concoction of condiments and worms.
Despite its outlandish premise, Jack has a been-there-done-that sogginess. In Big, a truly magical comedy, Tom Hanks showed you kid consciousness from the inside out. He didn't overplay the innocence of a rambunctious prepubescent boy; it was just there (he took in the world with a goofily literal-minded clarity), and the film's ingenious farce structure, which hinged on Hanks' impersonating a kid who was impersonating an adult, had sly sociological resonance. It spoke to a generation of overachieving, arrested-by-pop-culture yuppies who feared, on some level, that they were playacting at being adults themselves. In Jack, Williams conjures up a far more hackneyed vision of childish behavior. Alternating overeager fast talk with shy smiles, he's silly and goo-goo-eyed, and he seems to collapse into tears every 20 minutes or so. Jack, because of his ''specialness,'' is supposed to be more sensitive than the other kids, but mostly he seems like a 10-year-old from another era, before kids had learned to be cool.
There's something fundamentally cloying about Jack, and I think it's this: Robin Williams just isn't boyish anymore. He has a gravity now, a touch of middle-aged sadness (that's part of what made him so vital in The Birdcage), and so his attempts to unleash the child within seem more self-conscious and precious than ever. His performance works best when Jack, like Hanks in Big, is pretending to be a grown-up. A bit in which he impersonates the principal for a cluelessly flirtatious Fran Drescher is very funny, and there's a combustible sequence in which Jack hangs out at a nightclub and confronts the sins of adulthood. Still, even this scene raises a question: If Jack, in his body at least, is 40 years old, how come he never feels the slightest tug of lust? (Even his fifth-grade buddies are hot for Penthouse.) The halfhearted logic would nag less if it didn't grow out of Coppola's overly calculated attempts to create a fable of ''innocence.'' Too much sugar can blandify even the most sentimental fantasies. By the end, when Jack grabs oh so tastefully for your heartstrings, it's hard to shake the feeling that Coppola, who once made masterpieces, has now become a hack in an artist's body. C