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…
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
Then you know who knocks on the
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
"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.
Robert Sean Leonard
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
or adult guardian.