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Wednesday, July 30, 2003
Who would you go to hell with?
"Hell is other people": So said the great existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and if you're inclined to agree, then you'll appreciate "Tape" and "Swept Away," two movies working with the stuck-somewhere-with-someone-obnoxious principle. The difference being that the motel room in "Tape" puts us face-to-face with Ethan Hawke, who knows how to keep you glued to the screen with an intense, mental performance, while the desert island in "Swept Away" sticks us with Madonna, whose best acting is done in front of a microphone (pretending she's actually singing while the prerecorded vocals play away).
"Tape" is indie director Richard Linklater's followup to last year's cult fave, the animated "Waking Life." But "Tape" bears little resemblance to Linklater's rambling, stream-of-consciousness, ensemble films like "Waking Life" or "Slacker," except for its focus on Gen-Xers who talk too much. Instead, "Tape" is a sharply focused film, like "Before Sunrise" (also starring Hawke), which sticks to a couple of characters and a deep exploration of their relationships.
Shot on DV and filmed entirely in one motel room, "Tape" is an exercise in cinematic claustrophobia that plays out in real time. Hawke excels as the grungy Vince, a beer-swilling "dude" in his late-20s, returning to his hometown of Lansing, Mich., where his high-school buddy Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard) is premiering his debut movie at a local film festival.
Whatever made the two of them friends, it seems barely enough to keep their animosities and resentments in check. When Johnny stops by Vince's cheap motel room to hook up, he need only look around the room -- discarded beer cans, clothes strewn around, Vince in his boxers bouncing off the walls -- to start lecturing his pal over his need to grow up. Vince, a volunteer firefighter who deals drugs for a living, can't defend himself, but he can lay into Johnny's artistic pretensions, and particularly his holier-than-thou self-righteousness. Vince persistently turns the conversation to Amy (Uma Thurman), his high-school ex-girlfriend who, he implies, may have been date-raped by Johnny. Johnny doesn't seem to remember it that way, and the two are at each other's throats by the time Amy -- secretly invited by Vince -- arrives.
This makes for a "Rashomon"-like showdown of conflicting memories and interpretations, played at a taut emotional pitch. Much of the film's power comes from the dense, motormouth script by Stephen Belber (based on his stage play), which gives the cast plenty to chew on; fans of David Rabe ("Hurlyburly") or David Mamet ("American Buffalo," etc.) will be impressed. Linklater also makes the most of his one-room limitations, exploiting the mobility of DV to shoot from an insane number of angles. The camera work admirably revs up to a speed that keeps pace with the dialogue; this is "My Dinner With Andre."
Leonard brings a smarmy, passive-aggressive edge to his character that recalls Kevin Spacey at his best; Hawke, on the other hand, is compellingly repellent, scratching his butt, snorting coke and embedding an insult into every other comment. You wouldn't want to spend the night with them, but watching Vince and Johnny -- unrepentant, irresponsible male id vs. mature, thoughtful "new male" -- try to destroy each other's illusions makes for a gripping 86 minutes of wired, argumentative cinema.
"Swept Away" asks a question that Vince and Johnny might have come up with deep into a drinking binge: If you were stranded on a desert island, and the only other person there was Madonna, would you sleep with her? Now that's a tough one (though you can be sure the question would cut the other way, too).
Directed by Guy Ritchie -- Madonna's husband, and also the maker of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" -- "Swept Away" is actually a remake of the '70s film by Lina Wertmuller ("Seven Beauties"), although Ritchie didn't bother to include her name anywhere in the credits. (Which speaks volumes about the egos of the filmmaker.) The original "Swept Away" was agit-prop high concept, a Marxist romance in which a haughty upper-class woman gets stranded with a coarse working-class sailor on a deserted Mediterranean isle. The premise is exactly the same in Ritchie's version, but the subtlety in contrasting class and gender roles vs. our "natural" selves is lost entirely.
Madonna is fairly good as the perpetually dissatisfied rich bitch on a luxury cruise with her cowering husband and friends; Adriano Giannini seems straitjacketed into director Ritchie's Brit-based view of an amusing "Eye-talian" sailor. Madonna treats him -- like she does all hired help -- with disdain, calling him "Guido" and a "hairy, black midget," and Giannini stomps around below deck, waving his arms and shouting "She's a leezard, thees wooman! I theenk I'm-a gonna keel that f**keen beetch weeth a keetchen knife!"
The ship's captain tries to get him to calm down: "Our job," he says, "is to smile . . . like idiots." That's true for the audience as well, particularly when Giannini -- after having his fill of Madonna's tantrums and then slapping the "beetch" up -- barks "Dance for me!" and Ritchie cuts to Madonna dancing in a ballroom for a big Italo-bossa Nova musical number. Wertmuller's idea of radical politics didn't extend to including prefab video bits for MTV.
Overall, this is less a movie than a chance for Madonna to recycle all her old roles: There's the Material Girl, obsessed with wealth and status, who -- after getting smacked into submission by the sailor -- morphs into the S/M persona of "Erotica." ("Yes, master," moans Mad, as she kisses Giannini's feet . . .) Finally we get the Madonna of today, whining to her man that "you don't have to compete with 18-year-olds." To which he replies, of course: "I don't want a girl. I'm a man. I want a woman!" Take that, Britney!