If you have a yen for a pedestrian filmization of a three-character play that comes across like a watered-down combination of Sam Shepard and David Mamet, check out Richard Linklater’s “Tape.” It’s obviously well-intentioned, but sadly flat and unconvincing–the sort of talky piece, rife with reversals and twists, that might work moderately well on stage but seems totally stilted on screen.
Set entirely in a claustrophobic motel room nominally in East Lansing, Michigan, it’s basically a confrontation between two high school buddies, Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard), a well-spoken novice filmmaker whose picture is being screened at a local festival, and Vince (Ethan Hawke), a hotheaded California drug-dealer who’s flown in for the premiere. At first the two spar amiably, bantering with one another over each other’s faults; but the dialogue soon turns serious, even vaguely threatening, as Vince questions Johnny about how Johnny treated an old classmate who had once been Vince’s girlfriend–Vince wants Johnny to admit that he raped Amy, and when he does, taunts his friend by showing him that he’s tape he’s taped the confession. The tension between them boils over when Vince informs Johnny that Amy, who’s now a local assistant DA, is on her way to the motel; and when she arrives in the person of Uma Thurman, she’s drawn into the infighting, too. Needless to say, she turns the table on both men–a theatrical device that’s meant to be much cleverer than it is.
As one watches “Tape,” influences flood into the memory. The dueling old friends sound very much like the tormented brothers who populate so many of Sam Shepard’s plays (Austin and Lee of “True West” come immediately to mind), and the buried secret that serves as the linchpin of the plot also points to his work. The switch to a collision between male and female, on the other hand, recalls the David Mamet of “Oleanna.” But Stephen Belber’s dialogue has nothing of Shepard’s poetic richness or Mamet’s brittle sharpness; it’s pedestrian and repetitive. Nor do the performances make it sound better than it is. Hawke throws himself into the voluble, childish Vince, leaping around and snarling petulantly, but the character never comes alive. Leonard, as the more staid Johnny, seems content to recite his ponderous lines slowly and accurately; in his hands Johnny is all too much the control freak. Thurman, who comes to the party late, looks dowdier than usual, but remains emotionally parched.
As for Linklater, his treatment of the script is unimaginative at best and occasionally irritating. His habit of swinging his hand-held camera swiftly from interlocutor to interlocutor is unpleasantly dizzying, not unlike the churning circular movements that Larry Clark employed to such poor effect in “Bully.” The grittiness of the overall result may strike some viewers as realistic, but it seems more amateurish than anything else.
“Tape” was probably a labor of love for the buddies who made it, but it’s unlikely to be an object of affection for members of the audience.