At the same time last year that director Richard Linklater premiered his animated think piece "Waking Life," he also unveiled "Tape," a live-action feature that's in many ways its polar opposite. Though just as talky, it wallows in an intimacy that's light years from its companion film's grandeur. And where "Life" was beautiful, "Tape" is often too ugly for its own good.
Adapted by Stephen Belber from his play of the same name, the film is a three-character drama set in one room of a motor inn in Lansing, Mich. There, a volunteer fireman and dope dealer named Vince (Ethan Hawke) stages a reunion with his high-school buddy, Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard), now an independent moviemaker in town to appear at a local film festival. (Ugh.)
At first, the differences between the two men seem certain. Vince is a brutish boor fixated on events 10 years past their relevance, while Johnny has developed into a thoughtful young man of perspective. But when they revisit their memories of a woman (Uma Thurman) with whom they were both once involved, the picture clouds. Perhaps Vince is more sensitive than he lets on, and maybe it's Johnny's history that's in need of reconciling.
The 86-minute film plays out in real time. Linklater shot it in one week last May, and the result typifies the new indie philosophy that making a visibly cheap movie jackrabbit-fast is as virtuous as making an actual good movie. Not only does "Tape"'s digital-video footage look like hell, its hand-held cinematography is frequently obtrusive. Are we really expected to follow Linklater's frenzied camera from Hawke's face to Leonard's and back again without registering unintended amusement, followed by anger that we have no idea what has been said?
When the director's showboating isn't getting in the way, Belber's script lands some salient points about situational ethics and the pliable nature of guilt. The support he gets from the tiny cast, however, is spotty. Faced with the post-"Hamlet" challenge of bringing a real wild man to life, Hawke goes far over the top. Yet his Vince is never interesting -- just hyperactive. He shotguns beers, he makes faces, he bounces off his bed and periodically emits strange, squeaking noises. It's like being locked in a motel room with the gorilla from the American Tourister luggage commercials.
To Hawke's Curious George, Leonard is the Man in the Yellow Hat, a stabilizing influence who singlehandedly keeps the first half of the film remotely watchable. He's at once composed enough to earn our sympathies and persnickety enough to remain suspicious. As the discourse progresses, two more things happen that cause "Tape" to improve. First, Vince snorts some coke, which actually seems to have a calming effect on him. (This is the only time in history that blow has acted as a tranquilizer.) Second, Thurman's Amy enters the picture, bringing another outlook on their shared past and throwing both men's assumptions into question. With pinpoint accuracy, Thurman replicates the studied mien of a beautiful woman who has learned to get ahead in life by feigning interest in the doings of stupid men she secretly despises. It doesn't take a genius to figure out where a model-turned-actress might have picked up that trick, but however she arrived at it, Thurman's small jewel of a performance embodies the best that "Tape" has to offer.