Hard to grasp why reuniting pals don't leave when accusations, collusion fly in digital vérité 'Tape'
Another quickie guerrilla movie spawn of the digital video age, "Tape" is a real-time, three-character drama shot on the cheap in a hotel room by director Richard Linklater, who made such an awesome impact last month with the experimental animated philosophy daze of "Waking Life".
It's a movie that can work only if its characters hold you rapt for its entire run time -- and it might have done just that if said characters weren't so uniformly abrasive.
Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard play former high school buddies both in Lansing, Michigan, for a weekend. Leonard is there because he's an upstart filmmaker, convinced he's struggling for his art, whose first movie is playing the Lansing Film Festival. Hawke, a violent, drunk stoner with a chip on his shoulder, is ostensibly there as moral support, but in reality he has an entirely different agenda. He's never gotten over the fact that 10 years ago his high school girlfriend slept with Leonard. Now he has an ax to grind and a captive audience.
From the get-go it's clear these two guys have a relationship based on provocation, and it isn't long before Hawke is asking pointed questions about "that night" when Leonard took his girlfriend to bed. It takes him a while to get to the point, but when he does it's tantamount to an accusation of rape -- an accusation Leonard fails to dispel to Hawke's satisfaction.
"It was just something that got a little out of hand," he insists.
Hawke pushes on, forcing something resembling a confession out of his old friend -- just about the time the girl in question (Uma Thurman) turns up at the door of their room. It seems she lives in Lansing and Hawke contrived this meeting to watch Leonard squirm as some kind of catharsis for his immature psyche.
As the room becomes viscous with tension, Linklater's hand-held vérité, seat-of-his-pants style serves the story well (even if the wild camera movements induce motion sickness at times). But the one-room structure (adapted from a one-act play by Stephen Belber) almost single-handedly sinks the film because the more uncomfortable the situation becomes, the more you wonder why none of the characters don't just up and leave.
Hawke, Leonard and Thurman give what feel like under-defined performances of practiced "improvisation," which contributes to the problem. Leonard, for example, gives the impression that his character feels compelled to stay, but what it is that compels him is frustratingly unclear.
Thurman soon realizes there is emotional collusion afoot. But while she doesn't much care for the company of these two former boyfriends or their unfinished business, she not only sticks around but also ups the ante by playing head games of her own.
Eventually the behavior of all three characters degenerates to the point that you might start thinking, "Well, if none of them are going to leave, I will."
"Tape" -- the title refers to Hawke's surreptitiously recording Leonard's "confession" -- is not uninvolving or badly executed (for a film shot in six days). But it's hard to get wrapped up in a story when half the time you're second-guessing the characters' actions and imagining something smarter you'd have done in their position.