If Richard Linklater’s Waking Life emulates the syllogistic flow of a philosophy term paper cranked out during a chemically abetted all-nighter, its modest companion piece, Tape, suggests an ethics seminar conducted by a relaxed David Mamet or a defanged Neil LaBute. This digital-video rendition of a play by Stephen Belber chronicles an awkward reunion in a Lansing, Michigan, motel room between high-school buddies Vince (Ethan Hawke) and John (Robert Sean Leonard). Even the effusive greetings and catching-up pleasantries crackle with hostility. A dilettante filmmaker, John is in town to premiere his latest effort at a local festival; his old friend has shown up, supposedly for moral support, armed with several lost weekends’ worth of booze and dope.
Both are archetypal assholes, and the movie takes shape as an entertaining psychological armwrestle between rank belligerence and blustery condescension. The gamesmanship turns nastier when Vince brings up his ex-girlfriend Amy (Uma Thurman), and charges that when John got together with her one drunken night, the sex wasn’t exactly consensual. Vince bullies a flustered (taped) confession out of John; when Amy herself shows up shortly after, the mind games start to ricochet and reverberate.
Too willfully vague to be strictly Rashomonic, Belber’s script probes the vicissitudes of perception and memory while tweaking conceptions of culpability and victimhood—as in Waking Life, the subject is subjectivity. DP Maryse Alberti provides a superb visual analogue (a surfeit of whip pans notwithstanding), accepting camcorder cruddiness as a given and capturing the action from a lively assortment of angles; Sandra Adair’s syncopated editing contributes a mild caffeine buzz. Linklater, who handles chunks of real-time chat like so much Play-Doh, is attuned equally to his actors’ strengths and shortcomings. Hawke’s jumping-bean mania finds an elastic foil in Leonard’s blankly zealous indignation. (The casting effectively situates the movie in a squalid frathouse outpost of the Dead Poets Society.) Thurman stumbles through in a distracted daze that, in augmenting her character’s opacity, serves to heighten the disorientation of the final half hour—a quicksand of slippery motivations and evaporating truths.
K-PAX likewise reaches for profundity by withholding certainty: Is Kevin Spacey a visitor from a faraway galaxy? Or merely a traumatized savant with a preternatural sensitivity to ultraviolet light, a fearsome knowledge of astrophysics, and a saintlike capacity to heal the world, make it a better place? The movie takes nearly two hours to “celebrate the possibilities” (as the tag line instructs); to reinforce the point, director Iain Softley periodically aims his camera at a prismatic paperweight sitting on the desk of Spacey’s mystified psychiatrist Jeff Bridges (gamely assuming Karen Allen-in-Starman duties).
The institutionalized space cadet who calls himself Prot mocks the myopia of earthly religions, but the movie freely ladles on golden-light allegorical syrup, dispatching Prot on a mission of psychic restoration—he tends to his shrink’s workaholic self-absorption and soothes the requisite cuckoo’s nest of adorable fellow inmates. Complemented by a precious, tinkly score he seems to have smuggled in from American Beauty, the star engages in beatific mugging, some regression-therapy bawling, and a bit of crackpot exhibitionism—in one scene gobbling down an unpeeled banana (hmm, does Kevin Spacey have a secret? Alert Esquire!). K-PAX undertakes a garbled but comprehensive survey of Hollywood therapeutic clichés: The rain man has an awakening from his cocoon, pays it forward, turns into the fisher king. Indeed, the specter of Robin Williams looms large: No matter his planet of origin, Prot is, foremost, a beaming Everyrobin hologram, a mass of man-child icons from Mork to Patch Adams.