Coming from a director whose work I've liked ("Dazed and Confused") and loved ("Before Sunrise"), it was a suprise to me that Richard Linklater has come up with a film that I would compare to fingernails on a chalkboard for a little under 90 minutes. Shot on digital video and taking place in one room, Linklater's adaptation of a play offers a few decent one-liners in the midst of two weak lead performances - one simply indifferent, the other being one of the most annoying characters I've seen on film in recent months.
Hawke (obnoxious) plays Vince, a low-level drug dealer who's set himself up in a seedy hotel room. As the film opens, he's drinking beer continuously. It turns out he's there to meet up with filmmaker friend Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard), whose film is about to premiere in the local small-town film festival. The two sit and chatter about for the first half of the film, learning about what happened since they'd been friends in high school. Vince starts to drink and get high; he starts to push and manipulate John into admitting that something horrible might have gone on between him and a female classmate that the two knew. Not only that, he's managed to tape the conversation, as well.
In further coincidence, said classmate, Amy (Hawke's wife, Uma Thurman) is on her way over to have a little reunion with Vincent and John just happens to be there - before he goes, he wants the tape back. Vincent wants him to confront her and tell her he's sorry for what he did those years ago. The story would be easier to watch if it wasn't for Hawke's performance, which is so shrilly over-the-top that it makes the film very tough to watch.
Many have complained that the actor has done several performances that didn't have much energy, but he did have one award-worthy, restrained and subtle performance in Andrew Niccol's "Gattaca". Here, his performance is so overcharged that the character drags the entire film down - I just wanted him to shut up for even one moment. Thurman's role in the film is short and mainly towards the end, but even though it's a fairly short role, it's the best of the three performances and the best part of the film.
Linklater's 84 minute picture doesn't have much room to fill out the characters and the dialogue doesn't help matters, either. For several points in the middle of the picture, the two argue back-and-forth repetitively in immature ways, like children. In an attempt to get some energy going, Linklater has the camera zipping between the actors in dizzyingly fast motion or filming one little motion from several different angles. It's trying to compensate for the empty dialogue, but it doesn't succeed. "Tape" feels like it's something that should be literally on tape - or DVD - not something that's substancial enough to be in a theatrical release. It was filmed in a matter of a couple of days and looks like it took a matter of hours instead; it seems like just a little actor's exercise, not a full film. On the other hand, director Ed Burns was able to take a little over two weeks to make the intelligent and technically accomplished "Sidewalks of New York", out in release at the end of November.
"Tape" may have been a good idea from Linklater, but the final film really suffers from Hawke's overdone performance and dialogue that's only so-so. It's an experiment that might prove of minor interest for a rental by Linklater's fans, but I certainly wouldn't say it's worthy of a trip to the theater.