It seems odd to end a season of such openness and celebration with a film about social claustrophobia and long-repressed secrets, but then again, we’ll all be in the Ethan Hawke Book of the Month Club before Richard Linklater makes a predictable career move.
The hopelessly iconoclastic Austin-based director’s second film of the year—following Waking Life, his pretty-but-preachy semi-animated treatise on the meaning of life—is as small in scope as his first was big. Tape has one set and three actors who talk and talk and talk about themselves, their world, their past and the bad things they’ll do to each other.
The movie is a filmed version of Stephen Belber’s stage play. It all takes place in a room in a dumpy motel in Lansing, Mich., where three high school acquaintances get together to sift through the piled layers of their lives.
Vince (Hawke) is drinking Rolling Rock and dancing around the place in his underwear when we first meet him—and we soon learn that this is about as tame as this feral guy gets. He’s waiting for Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard), a high school buddy who’s in town for a film festival. Where Vince is unrestrained passion, Johnny is studied, haughty reflection. He criticizes Vince, a sometime firefighter and small-time drug dealer, over the polished tops of his nice shoes.
But it’s all a miscalculation by Johnny, who doesn’t realize the trouble he might be in. Vince may be here to right a wrong that Johnny may have committed against Vince’s ex-girlfriend, Amy (Uma Thurman). She shows up a while later, powerful and tall now as a prosecutor in Ann Arbor, but still defined by the incident that’s threatening to turn Vince from an ordinary sleazeball into a maniac—particularly given Amy’s current job description.
Linklater, a director given to concealing swaths of genius in hours of chatty boredom, again presents us with just enough excellent work to tantalize us into a bit of enjoyment, even if the majority of what we see isn’t scintillating. There’s an element of dramatic tension in Belber’s play that would carry onstage, but as with most screen adaptations of strong plays, the element of emotional spontaneity produced by live actors is difficult to replicate—even when it’s filmed with a digital video camera, as Linklater does here.
The other gigantic blinking problem is that Hawke is expected to carry off a role he can’t possibly sell. This pale-faced, weak-chested chess club refugee is no volunteer firefighter, and he’s certainly no tattooed pseudo-criminal. Instead, he’s quite clearly a wuss actor attempting to play those roles—with little success. He tries to make up for his lack of authenticity with enthusiasm, screaming some of his lines and flailing wildly with his hands while delivering others. It’s nothing more than amusing to see little Ethan auditioning for a spot at the big kids’ table.
Filmed with very little visual ambition, Tape sometimes feels like a rough-cut or an actors’ workshop—Linklater seems to be auditioning actors for parts in a more important film with characters that seem more like real people. Inside the Actor’s Studio suck-up James Lipton would eat it up with a spoon, but it’s not quite as tasty for the rest of us.
Eventually, that tension develops in the film’s final scenes, thanks to an interesting dimension to Thurman’s character not anticipated when she first shows up at the room. At this point, we glimpse what Tape might have been without the meandering first act and Hawke’s unconvincing performance: a taut, minimalist psychological thriller with portentous musings about everyone’s desire to bury parts of their past.
But Hawke can’t sell it, his real-life wife Thurman doesn’t have enough lines to save him, and Leonard is stuck in a thankless reactive part. Linklater, who has unaccountably trusted Hawke since Before Sunrise, has no success in drawing out the kind of tough, headstrong performance Antoine Fuqua got from Hawke in Training Day.
As a result, Tape collapses into a ball of missed possibilities and exploitative overacting. Linklater has made another film that plays better as a concept than an entertainment—and Hawke has given another performance that reminds us just how much we like actors who are all grown up.
Tape (R) ** Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman.