Holding It Together

'Tape' explores the sticky side of a threesome.

I've always hated Ethan Hawke. Not in the way one is now officially obliged to hate al-Qaida, but rather in the quiet, peaceful way that one hates Red Lobster or poorly constructed marital aids.

Thus, I was intensely surprised to find that I enjoyed his performance in Tape, but then again, Tape is a movie wherein nothing fails to work.

It's very hard to describe Tape adequately without giving away plot elements that are best discovered in the course of watching the film, so the rest of the review will be dedicated to discussing Mr. Hawke's hairstyle.

Although, before I get to that, I should point out that Tape was shot entirely on digital video, and edited on a Macintosh computer, making it the cheapest film to feature Uma Thurman since her brief walk-on in Crappy, Skinny Actresses with Unusually Large Breasts. Her well-deserved role in that documentary notwithstanding, Ms. Thurman is also unusually good in this film. Actually, she's great. I just didn't want to write "Thurman" and "great" in the same sentence, fearing it would bring about the apocalypse.

But she's really great. God knows where she's been hiding this reserve of acting talent, but I can only assume she's been holding it back in all her other films so as to have something in store for Tape.

Besides Thurman and Hawke, the film's only other actor is Robert Sean Leonard, whom some might remember from Dead Poets Society. Leonard is mostly a stage actor, and, since Tape is essentially a filmed play (and by "essentially" I mean "actually"), he fits in perfectly.

The entire story takes place in a single motel room in Lansing, Mich., where Vince (Hawke, who, again, doesn't suck in this movie) is drinking a lot of beer while waiting for his high-school buddy John to come by.

John (Leonard) is in Lansing because a film he directed is being shown at the Lansing film festival, and Vince has come to cheer him on. Sadly, John has not come to cheer Vince on, and immediately launches into a criticism of Vince's lifestyle.

Said lifestyle mostly involves selling drugs, doing drugs and thinking about drugs. It also involves seeming scary and potentially violent. It's the "potential" aspect of the violence that allows Vince to maintain his moral righteousness, but for John, even seeming violent is a misogynist activity, and John takes Vince to task for scaring women.

While John is doing this, in annoying semi-academic terms that reek of political correctness, Vince is preparing a big surprise for John, in the form of a meeting with Amy (Thurman, in her first non-sucky performance), a woman they both dated in high school.

What makes Tape work is both a set of shocking plot twists and some quotably intense dialogue, adapted from the stage play by Stephen Belber.

The filmed play is a genre that gets a lot of criticism from die-hard movie fans, since plays are about dialogue, whereas movies are supposed to be more visual in their storytelling elements. Still, when filmed plays work, they make some of the most memorable movies, because they represent that rare case where a great deal of time and care have been taken in refining the script.

The best examples of the form include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Basically, anything with Elizabeth Taylor.

While Thurman is not exactly up to Taylor's standards yet (and for those who only know Taylor as the strange drunken woman who does walk-ons in celebrity telethons, she used to be one of the best actresses in the business), she more than manages to hold her own in the Tayloresque role of a woman who seems to be in control but is haunted by a terrible secret.

Thurman shows up about 45 minutes into the film, and by then the quaint childhood friendship of John and Vince has been unraveled and rewritten so many times that they've completely swapped roles. Those 45 minutes of film time also represent 45 minutes of "real" time, and the rest of the movie unfolds the same way, which is only one of the daring feats that director Richard Linklater pulls off here.

He also uses the camera as a character, cutting between characters when the dialogue is less intense, and then, as things heat up, sweeping the camera back and forth. It's a bit dizzying, and the low-end medium makes this a particularly ugly film, but it's an effective strategy.

By saving money on this format, though, Linklater was able to spend a great deal on the mind-control helmets that turn Hawke and Thurman into decent actors. I think you can just see the antennae peeking out from beneath all of Hawke's hair gel.

Tape is not showing in any theaters in the area.

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