As a companion piece to the marvellous Waking Life, director Richard Linklater delivered this experimental and solid little adaptation of Stephen Belber's stage play. Some may not have even heard of this one, let alone seen it as it's probably one of his most unseen works. As always with Linklater, though, it confirms his place as one of the most original and under appreciated of American filmmakers.
Jon (Robert Sean Leonard) is a local boy who catches a big break as an actor and returns to his home town to attend a film festival where he is appearing in a new movie. At a motel he meets up with Vince (Ethan Hawke), his old high school friend. However, Vince hasn't changed a bit and seems intent on bringing up things from the past which Jon seems happy to let go of. When (Uma Thurman), another friend from school appears, things don't quite add up as their past relationship has more to it than some of them care to admit.
Set entirely within the confines of a small, cheap motel room with bad decor, Linklater's ingenuity is apparent from the offset. He shoots on digital video achieving a true minimalism that fully captures the feel of a stage play. There's no music score or elaborate sound effects, but only the highly charged, back and forth interaction between Hawke and Leonard (reuniting after Dead Poets Society). This might not sound too appealing on the surface but it's entirely effective for the material and the inclusion of an old flame in Thurman, adds a captivating edge to the overall purpose and motivation of the three-dimensional characters.
As a chamber piece, dialogue is the order of the day here and it's sharply written and tensely delivered by all three cast members. Their awkwardness is apparent in their exchanges and they have us constantly wondering who to side with while Linklater utilises his environment to marvellous effect. In such a confined space, his movement with the camera is very impressive and he fully captures the claustrophobia and tension to perfection.
Sometimes Linklater will delver a film that just doesn't receive the recognition it deserves and Tape can certainly be included among these. Criminally overlooked upon it's release (and since) as this is a brilliantly realised adaptation that benefits from strong performances, inventive direction and maintains it's intensity right to the very end.
"Some things can't be erased"
Tape is a very simple film technically, and the simplicity of it is what ends up making it so damn compelling. We're given three characters and one setting, and are left there for the whole film. The acting was good by all three, but I thought Uma Thurman was the standout here. Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard were good, but nothing about their performances were amazing.
Tape takes place in a motel room. For the first 30 minutes or so we are just given Jon and Vince. At first it is just two friends catching up after 10 years. Then Vince begins to probe Jon for details about what he did with Amy. Amy dated Vince during high school, then Jon for a little bit at the end. Vince seems to think that Jon raped Amy. The compelling nature of all this becomes even more elevated when Amy arrives invited by Vince.
This is an all dialogue movie with absolutely no gimmicks or action. It reminds me most of the movie The Big Kahuna, not because of the subject matter, but because of how it is presented. This is Richard Linklater at his roots. It's closer to Slacker then to movies that we find extremely entertaining like Dazed and Confused or School of Rock. This definitely isn't for everyone. I found it extremely compelling, but I would find it easy to believe if you found it boring.
Movies where any action at all is void from the plot make for polarizing films. Linklater is effective with what he is doing with Tape. It's oddly compelling in the way we sit and watch three characters in a claustrophobic room trying to come to terms with something that happened ten years ago. There feels like there's no escaping it, and there's not. You can't escape the past easily, and I guess if there's a point to Tape; that would be it.
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
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