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'Tape' is a claustrophobic look at a fateful reunion

Friday, December 07, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Often, when a play makes the leap to the screen, an attempt is made to "open up" the proceedings. A play with one set doesn't typically end up a movie that unspools in a single room.


RATING: R for language, drug content.

STARRING: Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard.

DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater

WEB SITE: www.tapethemovie.com



Not so with "Tape," which is played out entirely in a cookie-cutter hotel room (two beds flanking a nightstand, matching drapes and bedspreads, round wooden table near the door with two chairs, attached bathroom) in Lansing, Mich. In a way, you have to admire director Richard Linklater and playwright-turned-screenwriter Stephen Belber for refusing to bend to the conventions of moviemaking.

After spending 90 minutes in one room, you may feel more than a little claustrophobic. That (largely) works in this case, as the tension builds and the facades fall away from two and, eventually, three characters.

But you may find yourself wondering how many more oddball camera angles the cinematographer can create. We get reflections in mirrors, shots from above, images framed by a bent arm and quick, pingpong cuts between one actor and then the other.

"Tape," now playing at the Denis and Manor theaters, is about two best friends from high school, now 10 years removed from graduation, who get together for a fateful evening. Aspiring filmmaker Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard) is in Lansing for the premiere of his movie at a local festival. Vince (Ethan Hawke) is a volunteer firefighter and small-time drug dealer from Oakland, Calif., who is back in their hometown, too.

Vince, prowling around his room in his boxers and undershirt, is draining cans of Rolling Rock as if they were bottled water. He also has a stash of drugs at the ready. No wonder John tells his friend, "I swear to God, man, you get stranger every year."

It turns out that Vince has come alone, since he and his girlfriend broke up. But it's a former classmate named Amy (Uma Thurman) who drives the biggest wedge between the two.

She dated both men in high school and Vince has never forgiven John for that and something he believes happened. The accusations and admissions grow ever sharper and deeper, forcing us to change our perceptions of both men. Later, Vincent ratchets up the tension even further, and Amy appears, throwing a wicked wrench into the proceedings.

If a movie is going to depend on two and then three talking heads, they better be darn compelling. Hawke is a conflicted bundle of caginess, long-simmering resentment and beer, pot and cocaine-fueled rawness, while Leonard brings an air of moral superiority and a constant concern about how he's perceived.

As the actor says, "He's well-meaning but whether that's because he genuinely means well or just wants people to judge him as well-meaning is another question." Thurman also is excellent, sinking her teeth into her small but crucial role in a manner that, say, "The Golden Bowl" didn't allow.

"Tape" is an actor's dream. That doesn't mean it's a moviegoer's dream although it just misses earning that extra half-star or more.

It begs for letting us outside that room so we can breathe and watch the men in strange or familiar surroundings. And more than once, John reaches for the door and you think, why doesn't he just leave?

"Tape" is a movie about memory, gamesmanship, paybacks and settling scores. In the end, it made me think it must have been dynamite on stage. It's less so on screen.

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