Friday, November 16, 2001

Richard Linklater found a fresh approach to speculative filmmaking in “Waking Life.” He reverts to stale psychodrama in “Tape,” a three-character playlet that never makes adequate dramatic sense of a reunion between former high school intimates.

The brief encounter, derived from a one-act play that is starved for elaboration but probably needs a different set of characters to rationalize the effort, is confined to a shabby motel room in Lansing, Mich. The initial occupant is a jumpy Ethan Hawke, soon joined by Robert Sean Leonard and belatedly by Uma Thurman.

Mr. Hawke is revealed to be a troublemaking junkie and dope peddler named Vince, evidently invited to attend a screening of a movie directed by Mr. Leonard’s John, an aspiring director with a feature in competition at the Lansing Film Festival.

The festival is perhaps a legit event, but it’s completely beyond camera range in “Tape,” which never budges from the motel room.

The characters are 10 years beyond high school graduation. As they converse, we seem to be observing a contrast between a wretch and a prig. Vince is up to some kind of skulduggery, perhaps with blackmail in mind. The veil is drawn, and we discover that he wants to coerce a confession from John of sexual molestation at a graduation party a decade earlier. The alleged victim: Amy Randall, Vince’s girlfriend at the time.

Miss Thurman is Amy, now said to be an assistant district attorney in Lansing. Vince’s foxy, grandstanding method of interrogating John leads one to suspect that the scurviest character might actually have aspirations to become a prosecutor.

Perhaps this is Vince’s funny way of auditioning for a law career? Being a conscience-stricken type, John owns up to some disgraceful abuse of Amy’s feelings, if not her person.

Although cagey for motives of her own when confronted with this humiliating showdown, Amy tends to corroborate John’s view of their fleeting, ill-advised liaison.

She was sincerely in love; he wasn’t; it hurt a lot; she has gotten over it. Vince hasn’t, evidently because he is simple enough to believe that being Amy’s first steady gave him an inalienable right to be her first bedmate.

And so well, nothing. Dredging up this conflict proves a futile exercise for the actors and a minor waste of time for spectators.

Something a little more distinctive and purposeful needs to emerge from the conversations, which seem indebted to countless other expendable plays that lack the eloquence and individuality to save themselves from portentous cliche.

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