Grudge Report

Motel sick: Robert Sean Leonard in Tape.Photo: Clark Walker

Richard Linklater’s terrific new film Tape, scripted by Stephen Belber from Belber’s play, takes place entirely in a single drab motel room. Vince (Ethan Hawke) and John (Robert Sean Leonard), high-school friends meeting up ten years after graduation, share a hostile bonhomie that immediately lets you know they were never quite as chummy as they keep saying they are. John is visiting Lansing, Michigan, for a festival screening of his first movie as a director; Vince, who flies in from his home in Oakland, is a volunteer fireman and low-level drug dealer. Their edgy patter doesn’t last long before the real reason for Vince’s attendance is revealed: He wants John to admit that he raped Amy, an old high-school love of Vince’s, at the end of senior year. What’s more, Vince plans to bring Amy, whom he hasn’t seen in five years and who is now an assistant D.A. in Lansing, to the motel. He’s practically frothing at the mouth for the confrontation.

Linklater, shooting in digital video, utilizes the cramped quarters as a kind of pressure chamber; the hate in the room thins out the air. Vince, T-shirted and tattooed, chugs beers, crumples the cans, smokes grass, and does a line of coke; he acts as if a bomb is about to go off somewhere in the room. Jittery and volatile, he hasn’t outgrown his studly high-school unruliness. John counsels Vince to get over his “violent tendencies,” which have apparently cost him his latest girlfriend, telling him women don’t go for that sort of thing anymore. John seems both repulsed by and attracted to Vince’s swagger, and he speaks to him in disapproving, lecturing tones. These two may have been high-school buddies, but they come across more as truant and hall monitor.

And yet this comradely combo is also a high-school archetype. You wouldn’t guess it from all the concern being voiced in the media these days about bullying in the schools, but hoods and dweebs often form convenient alliances. Some of them even enjoy being around the Other; they know they may never get the chance again. The problem with Vince and John, date-rape issues aside, is that they find themselves cast in a role-playing situation from high school that doesn’t work for them anymore. Vince’s bad-boy act has an undercurrent of desperation, and John’s high-toned braininess is too foppish and fraudulent. He’s playing the moralist to Vince’s immoralist, and Vince is smart enough to know a fake when he sees one.

Linklater rehearsed the actors for two weeks before filming, in sequence, for six days. The performances are amazingly charged and fluid; besides Hawke and Leonard, there’s also Uma Thurman, as Amy, and she’s never been better. When Amy enters the fray, unaware of what lies in wait, her presence instantly changes the equation between the two guys. Vince thought she’d be his ace in the hole, but she turns out to be a wild card and, control freak that he is, he can’t stand it. It’s a good thing Amy arrives when she does; just when Vince and John begin to sound like a bickering couple, she brings a fresh dose of her own reality to the charade.

Perhaps more than any other director of his generation, Linklater loves the depth charges that can come from language; he’s as much in love with talk as any of the French New Wave directors ever were, and he often uses it in his films for many of the same reasons. He wants to show how people reveal themselves in the process of covering up, how they define themselves by what they say (or withhold). His animated feature, Waking Life, released just a few weeks ago, isn’t simply about theories of consciousness; it’s also about the bull and the beauty and the silliness that come out of people’s mouths when they try to talk about such things. Linklater’s protagonists are never more transparent than when they are trying to be opaque. That’s certainly true for Tape. Linklater must have recognized a kindred spirit when he read Belber’s play. He’s given us a reality-fantasy game, a psychodrama, a harangue, and a detective story all rolled into one.

David Mamet is mesmerized by con artistry to the point where, at least in the movies he writes and directs, it’s become his shtick. He’s showing us how diagrammatic life can be, but the results themselves are diagrammatic. In House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, and now, in Heist, he constructs an elaborate scam and then shows us the scam within the scam within the scam. Mamet’s approach to character in these movies isn’t layered, exactly; he’s simply piling one conundrum on top of another. Gene Hackman plays a veteran thief forced by his fence (Danny DeVito) to pull one last job before he retires. This wheeze of a plot is the pretext for a series of situations in which Mamet, in his hypercontrolled way, goes hog-wild for game-playing. The double-crosses of standard film noir have been octupled. Heist has its entertaining patches, but there’s a basic miscalculation at its core: Once we understand that the grifts just keep on coming, there’s little surprise in being continually hoodwinked – especially when the hoodwinks are as implausible as they are here. Mamet is so in love with the con that he’s conned himself.

Monsters, Inc. is the latest computer-animation feature from Pixar, the outfit that came up with the Toy Story movies and A Bug’s Life, all distributed by Disney. It’s no Shrek, but then again, it isn’t really trying to be. Shrek, from Disney rival DreamWorks, had a sharp wit and bouncy vaudevillean spirit that wasn’t exclusively directed at children. Monsters, Inc., which is about creepy-crawly thingies and cutie-pie toddlers, is much more kid-oriented than any other computer-animated movie thus far. In other words, it’s much more Disneyish. I enjoyed it. Pete Docter, the director, and his many animators are responsible for some amusing creations, including a talking green eyeball (voiced by Billy Crystal), a horned and hairy, purple-blue monster giant (John Goodman), and my favorite, perhaps because I’ve known people like her in real life: Roz, a toadlike company manager with a sharp peak of hair and ugly eyeglasses with little chains.

Directed by Richard Linklater; starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman.
Written and directed by David Mamet; starring Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito.
Monsters, Inc.
Directed by Pete Docter.

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