While the film world awaits what sounds like a daring experiment from director Richard Linklater -- the animated Waking Life, coming in October -- the filmmaker attempts to hold us over with Tape, a failure of a low-budget project if ever there was one. The movie is shot on video and confined to a single motel room, for the entirety of its real-time, 84-minute length. With such restrictive parameters self-imposed on a feature, success really must lie in creative direction, acting power, and a solid screenplay. All three are non-existent here.
Tape is based on a play by Stephen Belber, and the playwright contributes the clunky script, full of obvious dialogue and silly posturing. With one strike already against them, the experienced, name cast (Hawke, Leonard, and Thurman) then take the problem a step further, apparently not realizing that performances need to be taken down a notch on video, as the medium tends to overexpose every movement and moment. (While Thurman's performance is good, the trio need to watch Brad Anderson's Session 9 for a good example of subtle acting on video.)
Hawke, Linklater's Before Sunrise star, is Vince, a manipulative, possibly violent drug dealer who's reuniting with Leonard's Johnny, ten years after their questionable friendship in high school. Johnny is in town to premiere his first film in a local festival, and they convene in Vince's seedy, low-key motel room.
Through some poorly delivered dialogue -- although much of it can't be saved from the page anyway -- we learn of Vince's problematic tendencies and Johnny's existence as a self-proclaimed goody-two-shoes, high on moral fiber and good intentions. When Vince pushes Johnny's buttons in just the right way, a revelation surfaces, steeped in jealousy and revenge. Fellow classmate is then, unfortunately for Uma's career, thrown into the motel room mix.
It must be quite a challenge adapting a stage play to the screen, as many plays can be painfully static in comparison to the cinematic rhythms of a film. One would think that camera movement and placement could truly turn a "stagy" setup into a visually intriguing film (Lumet's Deathtrap comes to mind, as do the warehouse scenes in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs). So it's quite a disappointment to see Linklater's direction of Tape alternate between being stale and cliché.
When he's not spending too much time sitting on one shot -- trying to be kind of video "underground", I guess -- he's pulling off annoying swish pans between Hawke and Leonard while they argue, trying way too hard to force some urgency.
Hawke's performance reeks of exaggeration, and Leonard would appear to be a plain-old bad actor. He barely gets into the role, looking as if he were auditioning for the school play. The plaintive, wimpy, holier-than-thou stance that he applies to Johnny comes off as being not only annoying, but wholly stilted. I kept hoping for Vince to sock John in the face, but alas, it never happens.
Things perk up when Uma Thurman's Amy joins the fray, not only because it highlights the smartest points of the script, but because Thurman's performance is the richest of the three. She plays it naïve, mysterious, and collected, and it helps push through the finale -- a finale which Linklater and Belber surely think is cooler than it actually is.
Reviewed as part of our 2001 Boston Film Festival coverage.