Richard Linklater is a wonder - and a puzzler. Hard on the heels of his expansive, brilliant animated odyssey, Waking Life, he gives us the competent, puny and claustrophobic Tape, a three-hander about friendship, betrayal and memory set entirely in a Lansing, Mich., motel room.
A rendering on digital video of a play by Stephen Belber, Tape lacks the fresh language and fertile ideas of Linklater's previous vehicle for Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise, and the freewheeling inventiveness of Waking Life.
Robert Sean Leonard plays John, an up-and-coming filmmaker with a self-conscious social conscience, in town to show a picture at a local festival. Hawke plays Vince, John's ne'er-do-well old friend. John thinks Vince has come to share the happy event, but Vince actually wants to spring a trap on his buddy. He takes a jaundiced view of his friend's "maturity" and success: He thinks John is a hypocrite. John, for his part, expresses smug disapproval at Vince's wasted life. Vince has become a low-level drug dealer, operating out of a volunteer fire company, and his latest lover has just moved out on him.
To Vince, any slap on the wrist from John is a bad joke, because 10 years earlier his budding-director pal had rough sex approaching rape with Vince's high school girlfriend, Amy (Uma Thurman). In the movie, Vince gets John to confess on audiotape, then foments psychodrama with Amy, who lives nearby.
Tape briefly springs to life when Amy comes into the picture - Thurman hasn't acted with this much confidence and authenticity since Philip Kaufman's Henry and June (1990). But she's like an elegant blond flamingo flicking away a pair of buzzing gnats.
Hawke and Leonard capture, respectively, a druggie's hopped-up slyness and a tyro director's hauteur. The problem is Belber's script, which touches superficially on several incendiary subjects: One is how old friendships have an afterlife that can survive the deterioration of genuine fraternal emotions. Another is how male vanity convinces young men that the moves they make in lovemaking are momentous to their women. And yet another is the innate explosiveness of sex, which makes any testimony about sexual misbehavior unreliable.
The movie detonates these issues in the manner of a fragmentation bomb - they whiz through the air and raise chaos, yet fail to shed any heat or light. The male characters don't have enough stature to raise the discussion above the level of a collegiate rap session.
Thurman's Amy does have stature. Unfortunately, she's also an assistant D.A. in Ann Arbor, Mich., which makes Vince's crusade to entrap John easy and the two-part trick ending predictable.
The catch-as-catch-can quality of the movie's digital visuals accentuates its staginess without intensifying the drama, and underlines an irony; Linklater, one of our most gifted independent filmmakers, has crafted a movie that is almost generic in the indie world.
Despite its adrenalized actors, Tape is a tired return to the roots of the American indie movement's popular surge a dozen years ago. It could have been called "sex, lies and audiotape."
Starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Uma Thurman
Directed by Richard Linklater
Rated R (adult language, drugs)
Released by Lions Gate
Running time 86 minutes
Sun score **