Oh yeah, creeps, you know that something exciting always happens on a tape of motel activities... probably because not enough people saw this film to break that stereotype. No, the film is adequately engaging, I reckon, but it came out not even a month after "Waking Life", which it followed by only three days as Sundance, and either amount of time is way too brief to take comfort in Richard Linklater's name. I don't think the budget helped the fear, because as much as I joke about how no one saw this film, it didn't even break $500,000, and still made way over its budget, probably because Linklater blew all of his money on "Waking Life". I'd imagine all of that rotoscoping technology and college philosophy textbooks which the script was inspired by weren't cheap, and I don't know what's sadder: the fact that all of that money was kind of a wasted on a mediocre art film, or the fact that Ethan Hawke's, Robert Sean Leonard's and Uma Thurman's fame continued to fade after this production which could still afford them on a $100,000 budget. Well, Leonard was cheap because no one ever really cared too much about him, whereas Hawke and Thurman were cheap because Thurman was married to Hawke at the time, and because Hawke has always been Linklater's boyfriend, so I guess the secret behind saving money on this film revolves around a game of "Six Degrees of Richard Linklater" that, well, I don't really feel like playing, because I'm done with convolution for a while after "Waking Life". You know, while I liked "The Newton Boys", it was commercial something fierce, so I can kind of respect Linklater's going all-out with his 2001 comeback to experimental filmmaking, at least after this film. Yeah, if nothing else, this film is better than "Waking Life", although its predecessor in Linklater's filmography didn't raise too high of a standard, and sure enough, while this film is decent, it can't exactly, if you will, "tape" off its blemishes.
Certainly to save money and ostensibly compliment grounded themes, the film utilizes camcorder filming equipment that Richard Linklater plays with in a manner whose slick style often compensates for amateurish technical shortcomings, which still stand, diluting cinematic immersion value, not quite helped by the intentional claustrophobia and faithfulness of this adaptation of a minimalist play. The drama has primarily been criticized for its often feeling a touch too much like a play, and I subscribe to such criticism, because as much as sharper direction and more subtle acting make Stephen Belber's vision's translation to the silver screen more organic on the whole, the minimalism of the film's environment and the overt snap of the dialogue establish a stagey sense of objectivity in the subjective context of film. The play's feel doesn't work as well as it ought to when applied to film, nor does the play's real-time structure, which leaves plotting unable to break along its path for the sake of development beyond almost forced exposition, or for the sake of a feel for dynamicity, a shortage of which leads to a sense of aimlessness that some may find never dissipates, due to the fact that the narrative itself was never to be all that momentous. More talk than action in a setting that I have, time and again, described as minimalist, this film follows a narrative that was always to be plagued with natural shortcomings, deriving from a lack of dramatic meat and layering that was always to limit potential that, as you can imagine, gradually thins down under the weight of the stagey feel and dragging, often to a bland point. Thriving on immersion value, Richard Linklater's direction discards scoring and theatrical atmospheric bite to make up for a lack of technical and narrative flare, and as much as the film proves to be stylish, well-written and well-acted enough to entertain adequately, there are a number of moments in which the film finally slips into dullness. The film is by no means the bore that was Linklater's other highly experimental dramas, but it isn't all that entertaining, and it can't afford to have such bland spells, as its narrative is thin, and the interpretation of such a narrative is too technically faulty, stagey and aimless to sustain enough of your investment to make the final product all that memorable. However, what the film does right it does mighty well, certainly not to where the final product can stand a chance of transcending underwhelmingess, but nevertheless to where the effort gets by, even with a hint of style.
As I've said, the technical shortcomings of this perhaps intentionally cheap film stand firm, with amateur camcorder equipment that is distancing, but all but compensated for by an unexpectedly sharp sense of style to nifty shots and Sandra Adair's razor-sharp, snappy editing that offers genuine liveliness to neatly contradict minimalism as an important aspect in this film. Of course, just as it's worthy of criticism for thinning narrative meat and reinforcing something of a stagey feel, the minimalism of the film deserves some praise, as the motel setting, in its being tightly spaced and, of course, grounded, carries an immersion value that perhaps wouldn't feel so effective when it does, in fact, feel effective if directorial influence wasn't so thoughtful. I've already covered style, and that's arguably the most prominent strength in Richard Linklater's sparse direction, but not the only one, as Linklater's steady pacing, established through tight and subtly stylized scene structuring, while often a little too steady to sustain entertainment value, expands the feel of length in this film to a slightly more memorable degree, while keeping up some entertainment value through plays upon the snap in scripting and, for that matter, depth to the subject matter. Mind you, this minimalist story concept doesn't carry much meat, but as a study on the reconnection between longtime friends who uncover demons and what they haven't quite aged out of throughout the course of a revelatory evening, this narrative has an intrigue to it that I'm sure worked better on the stage, but still works reasonably well here, thanks to Stephen Belber's script's featuring dialogue that is still too stagey and histrionic for its own good, but thoroughly snappy in a way that is colorful, as well as extensive in a way that breathes as much life as it can into this subject matter. Natural and consequential shortcomings wait around every corner to dilute the life that Belber's script works to sustain, until the final product is rendered hardly all that memorable, but the film could have sunk further if it wasn't for inspiration found in Linklater's and Belber's efforts in crafting an adequately intriguing, deeply intimate character study, which can be made or broken by the cast. To be so cheap, the film is able to afford a trio of pretty talented performers, and they deliver as best they can, with the late-to-arrive Uma Thurman convincing as a respectable woman with certain regrets about as much as the seriously Jim Carrey-looking Robert Sean Leonard does as an intellectual who finds his morality called into question by someone he felt he could trust, while Ethan Hawke stands out in a show-stealing portrayal of a charismatic, but thoroughly flawed and arrogant manchild whose lack of predictability and shakiness in humanity really feeds a sense of mystery that does a lot to drive what intrigue there is to this psychological drama. The performers carry the film, more consistently than the offscreen talent, which is still there, providing enough adequate entertainment value and dramatic intrigue to endear, in spite of limitations that are a touch too difficult to overcome.
In closing, faulty filming quality and a stagey feel to the aimless and often atmospherically bland telling of a story too minimalist to be all that meaty make a rather forgettable drama, but there's enough flare to style, immersion value to the minimalist setting, thoughtfulness to the direction, cleverness to the writing and charisma to Uma Thurman, Robert Sean Leonard and a particularly gripping Ethan Hawke to secure Richard Linklater's "Tape" as an interesting intimate character drama, even though it could never overcome underwhelmingness.
2.5/5 - Fair