review by Elias Savada, 23 November 2001

As you hit the play button at the beginning of Tape, Richard Linklater's latest small indie project (shot on tape, transferred to film), Ethan Hawke is guzzling warm Rolling Rock and emptying another down the sink. As Vincent, he's setting the stage for something/someone—crunching both cans on the floor, tossing off his leather cowboy boots, dropping trousers. Now adorned in his drab, baggy undergarments and the hint of a tattoo on his back, he repeats step one, strategically positioning two more beer cans in random exasperation around a plain vanilla (actually dreary earth tone) motel room. Pumping up the scene with ten push-ups and a slow dash of stagy anticipation, we wonder…

Prom night?

We should be so lucky. More like opening night, if I can string you along a few sentences. If you know the cast (there's only three actors), maybe that knock on the door will bring Uma Thurman. No, it's John Salter (Robert Sean Leonard), and high-fiving Vince just whooping it up like old high-school friends do. Which is exactly what they are…on the surface. There's a low-level frenetic energy (the low-angle camerawork tells us so) in Vince's eyes.. He's popping pills while his buddy comments that "you're getting stranger every year," something that fans of director Richard Linklater wonder with each new release. It's been ten years since the forty-year-old Texas native's free-form Slacker, followed by Dazed and Confused (my favorite of his work). Only weeks ago I was dazed and not very amused with his Waking Life, this century's first existential animated film for the Ph.D. crowd, and a talky one at that. All other dummies -- hey, I only have a B.A. -- need not attend. At a preview screening of Life I counted more walkouts than last year's Battlefield Earth.

Back to Tape, it's also a bit talky. Which is what I assume Stephen Belber's original play is. But it's no My Dinner With Andre. Spalding Gray's monologue movies are divine. But his transfer of Belber's play to digital tape to film hasn't become anything even remotely enjoyable. Who are these "Men Are From Mars" chatting about violent tendencies? Johnny's a budding filmmaker, a cultured USC film school grad reluctantly returning to his home town of Lansing, Michigan (the red carpet at Cannes wasn't available), to premiere his debut feature at the local film festival (ah, finally getting back to that opening-night reference a few rows up). Vince is there to cheer him on…sort of. They are prodigal sons, tens years gone from high school and returning home to deal with past, unresolved issues, festering up like an ugly zit about to pop. Vince, a Oakland, California, drug dealer (he insists he's a fireman to everyone else) bummed out after being dumped by his girl friend of three years, gets slammed by his friend for selling dope to the fire chief; Johnny is a slightly haughty filmmaker who gets pissed at the percolating pothead's put downs of his social proclivities.

And so on for twenty minutes, until Amy Randall (Thurman) enters Tape. Actually they chat her up for another half hour as a shared experience, the dialogue escalating to a semi-heated, extended-play bark fest. Boiling down to one excruciating investigation (for those whole value quality cinema time) from the obsessed Vince: Did Johnny rape Amy ten years ago? Soon the camera starts panning quickly back and forth between the two men, as if following a volley, tracking on lobbed, remorse-filled dialogue instead of tennis balls. It's really annoying.

Then you know who knocks on the door.

The interrogation enters three-ring-circus mode. Ulterior motives bubble to the surface, with a intimation of spineless, irrational extortion and a gaggle of misinterpreted concerns, generally one-sided. Opponents (and the camera) volley for serve, blame, mockery, jealousy, and repressed perceptions.

"Would you guys just figure out what the ---- you're talking about?"

Actual line from the film.

Actual way you might feel by the time that line is uttered.

While this mind game has a semi-enlightening ending, the trip home isn't worth the effort. The filmmaker and his cast may have had a fine time putting this little film exercise together, but Brenda Lee's version of "I'm Sorry" swells up as the end credits roll. Regrettably, that's the only apology the audience is going to get.

Directed by:
Richard Linklater

Ethan Hawke
Robert Sean Leonard
Uma Thurman

Written by:
Stephen Belber

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent
or adult guardian.








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