Do the Wrong Thing

Former friends reckon with reality in Linklater's Tape

Dec 12, 2001 at 4:00 am
Tape, a film by Richard Linklater, isn't. It's high time for some cinematic clarification: If a project is shot on celluloid, with light searing images onto emulsion, then it's a film. If it's recorded with magnetic frequencies or digital code (as is the case here), it's a video. Of course, there are gray areas involving amalgamation, transfer and projection (not to mention silly films), so, when in doubt, try "movie." And should you hanker for variety, just remember, "flick" is pedestrian and "picture" crusty -- it's usually best to stick with clear definitions.

Love him or loathe him, Linklater is fairly successful at two things: mucking up these technicalities (especially in his other current release, the live-action/animated Waking Life) and expressing a smoldering disdain for anything that's easily defined. Unlike his Austin-based peer Robert Rodriguez, whose crowd-pleasing Spy Kids was a tight, marketable showcase of design, wit and warmth, Linklater prefers to meander on the fringes, rambling through all available scales in search of poignant notes. You'll catch flashes of brilliance in his work, as long as you're prepared to wade through an awful lot of blather.

With Tape -- adapted by Stephen Belber from his stage play, with cinematography by Maryse Alberti -- Linklater (who shot his first feature on Super-8) has pared down his peculiar technical ambitions in order to lay open some emotional scar tissue. Tape is set entirely in a drab motel room, with yammering aplenty -- to the point where the cramped location becomes less a torture chamber for the characters than for us -- but when the project cuts through its own crap, it achieves its humble goals. The video is muddy and the dialogue whip-pans just plain lazy -- heck, even Wayne Wang's Center of the World had the good sense to vary the locations for its twentysomething sexual angst -- but for three jerks bitching in a box, Tape makes the most of its minimalism. At its best, it's Betrayal for the Breakfast Club set.

We first encounter the hopped-up Vince (Ethan Hawke) chugging Rolling Rock and leaping about his miserable little space like an angry monkey. He loses his cowboy boots, strips down to boxers and a wife-beater (revealing tattoos of some or other hipness), then answers the door. The more refined and repressed Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard) strides in, and we quickly learn the two are chums from high school, that they're both in Lansing, Mich., to attend a film festival featuring Johnny's socially resonant new movie and that there are plentiful bones to pick.

As is often the case among young friends, there's a rivalry and a wickedly uncomfortable dependence between Vince and Johnny; the two are at odds but pathetically incomplete without each other. Johnny's a USC grad, wearing pricey shoes and staying at the Radisson, stuffily informing his reactionary friend, "Occasionally you have a tendency to act in a phallic fashion." Indeed, Vince is all ardor and violence, a volunteer fireman and dope dealer who's been seething in Oakland for a decade, waiting for his chance to play both conscience and punisher to Johnny for exploiting Vince's ex-girlfriend back in high school. It's a grudge match between pretense and pugnacity, with neither side looking too charming.

The scenes between the two are mostly just passable. Their vigor in joy and fury seems weirdly overamped, and Hawke couldn't find his dark side with both hands. (As preparation, he seems to have glanced fleetingly at Taxi Driver.) Nonetheless, both he and Leonard struggle admirably, and they improve markedly when their former flame Amy (Uma Thurman) shows up. Having evolved into an assistant DA in nearby Ann Arbor, Amy's primary passion is prosecuting criminals, which puts the boys tidily on edge.

Because Hawke and Thurman are married and the male leads have a relationship dating back to Dead Poets Society, the actors are forced to balance the blessing and curse of close familiarity. Like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming's The Anniversary Party, at times the video feels like an overwrought drama workshop, with the characters' unlikely motivations and competition for authenticity spilling out and tainting the performers' plausibility. As praise to all involved, though, Tape's a true way-homer; its seemingly cheesy conflicts improve on later reflection.

Thurman's character is particularly intriguing; the actress plays Amy glamorless, harboring a long-dormant volcano of spite. As Vince aggressively manipulates his friends and Johnny tries to one-up him with largely hypocritical openness, Thurman explores Amy's twisted bipolar head, alternating between the queen of denial and the grand inquisitor. When Tape is truly on, as in these later scenes, its production format is eclipsed by its thematic impact, a welcome tendency in any movie.