A stellar performance by Patrick Stewart enhances a talk-driven three-hander clearly in need of subtlety and substance.
Sometimes, a performance not only captures the essence of an entire film, but also drives its fortunes. Sometimes, that proves true even when both commence with theatricality and convenience bordering on caricature, setting a distinctive tone only to chip away at it. Such is the case with Patrick Stewart and Match, the nuance the latter evolves to display clearly driven by the former. When the actor soars and deepens, so does the feature – and when he shows fragility and honesty lingering beneath the initial façade of obviousness, the film does the same.
In a simple scenario, three people meet, chat, relax and open up. Though largely starting as strangers, alcohol, drugs, time and proximity loosen their tongues and their guard, allowing harsh and hidden truths to sliver out. Experienced Julliard ballet professor Tobi Powell (Stewart, X-Men: Days of Future Past) entertains Lisa (Carla Gugino, TV’s Political Animals) with stories about his colourful past sauntering around the world, her cop husband Mike (Matthew Lillard, The Bridge) sternly looking on. Their discussion is framed as research for Lisa’s dissertation about the history of dance and choreography; however it quickly moves to other topics.
Brief jaunts to a diner, in a taxi and on to the rooftop aside, Match dwells in a New York apartment with the trio, watching as a convivial mood turns candid, confrontational and cathartic. As the centre of the storm, the expressive Tobi changes with the atmosphere and focus, the film’s weather vane for fluctuating moods, tones and narrative developments. He initially appears extroverted and performative, putting on a show for his guests and enjoying the attention he receives as a result. What seems laboured soon softens as the conversation shifts from professional memories to personal matters. Revelations that follow may be easily foreseen, but the growth in the underlying character study is never neatly boxed in.
The dialogue-centric nature of the three-handed drama gives away Match’s basis on the stage, with writer/director Stephen Belber adapting his own Tony-nominated work. It isn’t the playwright-turned-filmmaker’s first effort to make the leap to the cinema, with Richard Linklater’s 2001 film version of Tape taking that honour, nor is it his first stint behind the camera, after 2008 comedy Management. The movie that eventuates apes both, sharing conflict and a preference for talk over action with one, and awkward comedy with the other.
Belber’s stylistic choices do little to assist the transition to screen, favouring standard shots back and forth between the three characters. Intimacy ripples throughout every scene, a feat perhaps made easier with camera placement and well-timed cuts than played out in a cavernous theatre, but try as it might to bring a sense of cinema to the story, Match is always an actor’s showcase. Gugino more than Lillard rises to the calibre of their lead; however all three share a series of earnest and explosive encounters. It is Stewart viewers will remember, though, not just for adding grace and generosity to a routine rollercoaster through life’s choices and regrets, but for bringing subtlety and substance to a film in need of his more considered touch.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Director: Stephen Belber
US, 2014, 90 mins
Mardi Gras Film Festival
February 19 – March 5