In Tape, Ethan Hawke releases his inner actor, and it’s a kick to see. As Vince, a nattering drug dealer in his late 20s, Hawke spends the entire 88-minute film bouncing around a crummy Midwestern hotel room, high on beer and pot and coke, cajoling his old high school buddy, Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard), into owning up to a sticky secret from his past. The unraveling confessional structure is familiar, but Hawke, cast as a ”Hey, dude!” wastrel who’s a lot more articulate than he looks, gives every moment a tiny punch of surprise. He bursts out of the earnest armor of his Ethan Hawke-ness and does fey sarcastic takes, the way Jack Nicholson did in The Shining. He whipsaws from anger to mockery to boyish hurt, and he just about solders his nervous system to that of his costar, Robert Sean Leonard, who delivers a supple and lacerating performance of his own.
Leonard’s character is a smugly ambitious filmmaker who employs the hip, touchy-feely language of corporate civility to scam himself into thinking that he’s not a selfish guy – that he’s better than a stoner caveman like Vince. The movie is about their yuppie-vs.-young-bum rivalry, which is rooted in Johnny’s delusion that he’s too nice to be an alpha-male bastard. Tape is based on Stephen Belber’s stage play (think Sam Shepard with less meandering), and though it never leaves that hotel room, the film is anything but static. The director, Richard Linklater, shooting on digital video, seems to have his camera everywhere at once, rocketing it back and forth between the actors, layering in reaction shots that say as much as the words do.
Vince is going to drag Johnny’s hypocrisy out of him any way he can. In this case, that means hauling in Amy, the girl they were both obsessed with in senior year; she’s played by a wilier than usual Uma Thurman. Linklater has hardly been a slacker this year. I’ll take the tricky confrontational babble of Tape over some of the gauzier soliloquies in Waking Life, but either way, he’s a filmmaker in love with the music of talk, and let’s bless him for that.