[Screen It]

(2001) (Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard) (R)

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Drama: Three former high school classmates come together in a seedy motel room where one is determined to dredge up a questionable past deed and force the other two to come to grips with it.
Vince (ETHAN HAWKE), John (ROBERT SEAN LEONARD) and Amy (UMA THURMAN) are all former classmates from high school who've arrived at Vince's Lansing, Michigan motel room. While Amy lives there, Vince has arrived to see John's latest work in a film competition and the two men catch up on old times.

It turns out, however, that Vince has ulterior motives since he's still upset and obsessed with the fact that Amy broke up with him ten years ago during their senior year, only to end up going out with and ultimately sleeping with John. Accordingly, and having heard details about the encounter, Vince tries to get John to admit to date raping Amy.

John obviously denies that, but Vince keeps egging him on, eventually changing his perception of what really occurred. When Amy finally joins them and denies any wrongdoing on John's part, the three ultimately come to grips with their past.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
As I've mentioned various times in the past, it's often difficult to adapt most other storytelling mediums into films due to their inherent structural differences and means of spinning their yarns. While each has specific characteristics that create such problems, few come as pre-loaded with them as stage plays that take place within one geographically limited setting, usually in the form of a room or elevator.

Part of that's because film is an intrinsically visual medium where the story is told with pictures, while plays - especially ones limited in movement and setting - rely far more on dialogue to deliver the goods. One need only turn down the volume or cover their ears while watching both to see that films are generally easier to follow sans sound. Of course, there are exceptions to that "rule," but director Richard Linklater's latest film, "Tape," proves it.

Adapted by playwright turned first time screenwriter Stephen Belber from his own play, the film is about three former high school classmates "stuck" in a motel room where they discuss the particulars of a past deed regarding two of them. Since that involves sex, possible date rape and differing views of exactly what happened ten years earlier, the stage - so to speak - would seem to be set for a possibly riveting drama.

After all, there's the whole "she said, he said" element of such touchy subject matter, a confined setting, and a character who seems intent on badgering the others into discussing the issue. The latter isn't doing so because he's a good guy who cares about them, the law, or is practicing to be a daytime TV talk show host, however. Rather, it's because he previously dated the girl and is upset that she slept with the other guy after breaking up with him during their senior year in high school.

Unfortunately, despite the inherent potential in such a setup, the film doesn't really work that well, and that's due to several reasons. For one, any one-locale film is obviously face with obvious limitations, particularly when it's set in a small motel room. There's only so much a director can do visually with such a setting, and Linklater ("The Newton Boys," "Dazed and Confused") - who's shot the film with a handheld digital camera for a "you are there" feeling - resorts to lots of cuts and swish pans (where the camera quickly zips back and forth between characters) to try to make things interesting from a visual perspective.

For many viewers, though, that's apt to give them a headache and/or induce some motion sickness, but beyond that it does little for the film or the viewer's involvement in it. The bigger problem, however, is that such a one-set story obviously needs its dialogue to carry the film, and that which is found in this picture simply isn't strong enough to do so.

Unlike the work of fellow playwright turned screenwriter turned filmmaker David Mamet, the dialogue here isn't particularly interesting - with characters often simply repeating and retreading what they've already said - and doesn't have the snap, crackle and/or pop to engage or entertain the viewer via any sort of brilliant or aurally wonderful wordplay.

All of which leaves the film's fate in the hands of the trio of performers who've agreed to star in it. While Ethan Hawke ("Training Day," "Snow Falling on Cedars"), Robert Sean Leonard ("Driven," "The Last Days of Disco") and Uma Thurman ("Sweet and Lowdown," "Gattaca") bring an obvious star quality to the proceedings, they're limited by the confines of the setting, writing and directorial style. Despite generally good, if occasionally annoying performances, they simply can't due as much with the material as one would have liked to have seen.

Although we're supposed to be mesmerized, fascinated and/or simply interested in the setup and then how perceptions - both ours and from and regarding the characters - change as the story unfolds, it simply didn't work for me. I also hated the fact that certain characters, when fed up with what's transpired, simply don't leave the room.

A few easy script changes could have remedied that - a raging blizzard, a police standoff in the parking lot, etc. - but as it stands, viewers are likely to grow increasingly irritated and perplexed about why the perturbed characters simply don't walk out the door. There's not enough substantial material to warrant them - or us - to stick around to see how things are ultimately going to play out.

That's especially true when nothing, other than the truth as we're supposed to believe it, is revealed and/or happens by the time the curtain falls - uh - the end credits roll. With such a setup, one imagines some sort of wicked or at least interesting twist is going to occur where one or more characters drop some sort of bomb on the others, making everything that preceded it finally pay off. While there's a tiny bit of deception at the end, it's not enough to justify the buildup or satisfy the viewer.

Feeling far more like a stage play or a cinematic exercise posing as an important film with a strong social statement, the picture is grounded by too many problems to work as well as it might have had it been opened up more, both literally and figuratively. Accordingly, "Tape" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 25, 2001 / Posted November 16, 2001

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