Remember those really embarrassing things you did in high school, the ones that, when they suddenly pop into your brain 10, 20, 30 years later, make you cringe with regret, after which you try to mentally force them back into the recesses of your mind, where they belong? Richard Linklater's Tape is built around one of those incidents, and to say that it made me cringe, not once but over and over again, is to pay it the highest compliment. Based on a play by Stephen Belber, Tape stars Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard as a pair of old high school buddies who are reunited in a dingy motel room on the outskirts of Lansing, Mich. A decade after picking up his diploma, Hawke's Vince is still smoking pot, shooting beers and, in general, raising hell. Meanwhile, Leonard's Johnny has become an independent filmmaker, with his first opus ready to unspool at the Lansing Film Festival. By the time the night's over, they'll both wish they'd never returned to their hometown.
Taking place in real time and barely cracking the door of that motel room, Tape feels at once claustrophobic and freewheeling. We're trapped in there with Vince and Johnny, who have an old score to settle, but Linklater and his team (cinematographer Maryse Alberti and editor Sandra Adair) come up with so many camera angles, so many shot strategies, that the possibilities seem limitless. Hawke opens the movie all by himself, preparing for company by double-fisting beers, hurling one can against the wall and dropping on the floor for some impromptu push-ups. The actor's worked very hard to shed the mantle of earnestness that's been draped over his shoulders since Dead Poets Society ("O Captain! My captain!"), and after Hamlet and Tape, he may finally have gotten the job done. Vince is a reckless asshole who's never gotten over the fact that his high school girlfriend, after they broke up, had a brief fling with Johnny. And although Hawke has a little trouble with "reckless," he totally nails "asshole."
And Leonard, having fought his own battles with boyish enthusiasm, finally seems on the brink of manhood in Tape. Johnny is the responsible one in what seems like a bad case of sibling rivalry, but as Vince cajoles and coerces him into revealing what exactly happened with Vince's old girlfriend, we start to realize that neither of them is particularly mature. Or particularly honest. Or particularly interested in continuing their once-close friendship. Something between an acting exercise and an encounter session, Tape can't help but remind us of Sam Shepard's odes to alpha-male bonding, from True West to Simpatico. What sets Tape apart is the appearance of a female. Over halfway through the movie, Uma Thurman arrives as Amy, the girlfriend in question. Still living in Lansing, where she's an assistant D.A., Amy perhaps expects little more than to catch up with some old friends. Whatever she expects, she turns out to be prepared for anything.
I knew Linklater was a directing genius when Thurman, so weak in so many roles, not only held her own against these two young gorillas but had them slipping on banana peels. Amy has her own interpretation of what happened back then. (Let's hear it for female subjectivity.) And when she's through refereeing Vince and Johnny's game of one-upmanship, the potholes in Memory Lane have turned into craters. At the request of the filmmakers, I'm trying to be discreet about what exactly gets revealed during Tape's hour and a half of real time. But I will offer one word: date-rape. And I'd like to add that the movie's a masterful dissection of the forces that drive men to spend as much time and energy fighting each other as they spend trying to attract women. Not since Two Guys and a Girl has the male psyche received such close scrutiny. Someone please notify the Academy that, in a tiny little movie shot on video, three young actors are giving the performances of their lives.