Film Review – Match
One of the hardest things to do cinematically is having people sit down and talk. For one, the dialogue needs to maintain our attention. And two, there has to be a reason for characters to stick around when the conversation gets tough. In reality, some people would walk away instead of dealing with their issues face to face. But if filmmakers do it right, this setup can be captivating. Stephen Belber’s Match (2014) is a good example of how it can work. Although it doesn’t come near the heights of, say, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Belber convinces us that these characters must be here at this exact point of their lives—they can’t run away.
If anything, the highlight here is the riveting performance of one Sir Patrick Stewart. Solidifying the fact that he is more than just Professor Xavier or Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Stewart appears to be given free rein to exaggerate and gesture. He plays Tobi Powell, a world-renowned dance instructor teaching at Julliard. At seventy-four, Stewart has the sprightliness of someone half his age. He chews scenery at any given opportunity, and at certain points nearly overdoes it. Tobi has contrasting and quirky traits. Years of gallivanting as a youth lead to his being a near recluse as an older man. He still teaches with the same exacting eye, but now would rather stay home cooking or collecting his fingernails in a jar (yes, you read that right) instead of going out and socializing.
Into his life come Lisa (Carla Gugino) and Mike (Matthew Lillard), a married couple from Seattle who travel to meet and interview Tobi for Lisa’s dissertation on dance. Through the course of a day and night, Lisa and Mike learn about Tobi and his experience as a dancer and teacher. Even more interestingly, they exude an odd fascination for Tobi’s sexual escapades during the 1960s. At first, Tobi is more than willing to oblige (one memorable moment has Tobi expressing his proclivity for cunnilingus), but as Lisa and Mike start pressing more towards Tobi’s personal life (particularly his bisexuality) we realize the interview was conducted under false pretenses. Revelations are made, forcing all three to come to grips with their pasts and their connections with each other.
Belber (who wrote and directed) succeeds at placing the characters together and tying them down so they won’t escape. This is not a situation where any of them can ignore the secrets that have come to light, but must deal with them in their own way. The dialogue is grown up and mature, even when Tobi drifts off into more playful (and naughty) avenues. All three are painted with different shades. Along with Tobi, we learn of Lisa and Mike’s relationship, how it went from passionate to stagnant before either of them realized it. Lisa spends most of the time interacting with Tobi. Mike is less articulate than the other two and acts more from a primal place, unfortunately casting himself as basically the third wheel. Matthew Lillard does what he can with the writing, but Mike is simply not in the picture long enough for us to develop empathy. We gravitate away from him even when he’s just as important to the story as Tobi and Lisa are.
In a lesser film, these characters would have engaged in a sort of love triangle. There are hints of that possibility, as the sexual talk between Tobi and Lisa could have erred down that path. Fortunately, Belber avoids that trap. The two connect intellectually instead of physically. There is a mutual understanding there that Lisa and Mike do not have, despite the two clearly loving each other. Carla Gugino is strong in her role, where she is asked to internalize a lot of her character’s thoughts and feelings. She’s the balance between Tobi and Mike, and weaves between them without ever coming off as false. There are points where the screenplay has her perform a cliched dramatic scene (such as her emotional release when Tobi teaches her a dance position), but that doesn’t happen enough to take away from her overall performance.
As much as Belber tries his best to elevate the material, there are instances where the narrative stumbles. This is mostly due to the constraints of the approach. Because it’s set in one location during a 24-hour time frame, some of the character development feels rushed. At one point, they yell and scream at each other; at another, they hug it out. It’s hard to believe that the issues raised (which are difficult for anyone to handle) could come to some resolution by the morning. Tension and anger are handled with a perfectly timed line of dialogue. And at the end of this emotional roller coaster, the screenplay decides to pull the rug out from underneath itself, making us wonder if it was all worth it.
But still, Match is a good little movie with three fine performances in it. It has a nice rhythm, and never falls stagnant despite having nothing but people talking throughout. And, really, when you have Patrick Stewart talking about his free-loving days back in the sixties, you’re off to a positive start.