It is not every day that you get to watch veteran actor Patrick Stewart rave about cunnilingus. Then again, not every day is the Tribeca Film Festival and not every veteran actor agrees to discuss such things in public. The film in question is Match, based on the 2004 play of the same name. Playwright Stephen Belber directed this adaptation of his own work, a first for him. And despite the verbal power of his original text, that’s pretty obvious. The final product could never be mistaken as anything other than a screen version of a theatrical production.
Is that a bad thing? Not inherently, and Match is not a bad movie. This is a very different case than Venus in Fur, Roman Polanski’s unambitious adaptation of an open-ended, mythological play with bonkers cinematic potential. Belber’s narrative is a realist, simple living room drama that doesn’t necessarily cry out for fireworks. It begins with Tobias (Stewart), an aging dance teacher who works at Juilliard and lives in Inwood at the tip top of Manhattan. He’s charming, awkward and very nervous as he waits in his favorite diner for his guests. Lisa (Carla Gugino) is a PhD candidate researching the history of dance in New York, and her husband Mike (Matthew Lillard) has come along to record the interview. That’s how it begins, anyway.
Nothing is as it seems in Match, at least when it comes to the big stuff. Mike’s insistence on driving the interview toward Tobias’s sexual history, particularly on one period of six weeks back in the late 1960s, throws everything wide open not too far into the film’s first act. A fight breaks out and cracks emerge everywhere. Tobias has to re-examine his past, Mike his childhood, Lisa her marriage. This is something of a living room drama, built around a single secret and its ramifications.
Belber and, perhaps more importantly, his actors do an excellent job of withholding emotion as well as information. Lillard is playing a fairly transparent character but Stewart and Gugino have a lot of self-guarding to do and they do it beautifully. This is not to sell Lillard short, of course, and he fills out the ensemble with a richness that might not seem obvious for his character on the page. The draw of this film, as is the case with many play adaptations, is the strength of the performances.
As for why that’s the case, look to the way Match is made. Belber and cinematographer Luke Geissbuhler do their best to spice up the almost constant dialogue, but they never quite achieve an identifiable visual style. Juxtapositions of talking heads only go so far, particularly in this case. Moreover, the film doesn’t try to even mask the blunt framework of the original play. A mid-point montage of the three characters trying to settle down after a nasty confrontation, only hurt by the emotive music, screams “intermission.” The same is true of the finale, which goes on for a good minute too long in its attempt to neatly tie up something resembling catharsis.
Match functions best as a version of a decent play that you can watch in a cinema or, eventually, in the comfort of your own home. That might be damning with faint praise, but this is probably the most common pitfall for a theatrical adaptation. It’s simply a shame that it happened to such a talented cast.
The Upside: Patrick Stewart leads Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard in a living room drama that brings out the best in all three.
The Downside: Director Stephen Belber struggles to turn his own play into a movie, failing to fully exploit the potential of the moving image and fumbling the intermission and conclusion sequences.
On the Side: This isn’t actually Belber’s first feature as a director. In 2008 he wrote and directed Management, starring Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn.