Thanks to capable acting, a simple plot turns into a conduit for the film's real mission: capturing moments.
The New York Times runs a regular series of essays called “Modern Love” in which contributors explore every nook and cranny of the wonderful world of love and lust. In a recent essay, author Mandy Len Catron introduces the idea of a test that supposedly creates intimacy, even between strangers, if you ask a certain series of questions to a partner. The rest of the essay captures the dialogue of her and her partner giving the test a whirl—and you guessed it, it works.
Match, a movie by director/playwright Stephen Belber (adapted from his own play), seems to grapple with a similar premise: What situations–indeed what conversations–are the ones that can make complete strangers feel immediately close? What, if anything, is the trigger in our interpersonal lives that allows us to put our guard down and really let someone see us?
The strangers in this case are really a group of three: Tobi (Patrick Stewart), an older man who has clearly lived but now goes for the straight-and-narrow life of teaching dance at Juliard. And Lisa (Carla Gugino) and Mike (Matthew Lillard), a couple in their 30’s, old enough to make statements like “I was supposed to be more than this,” but young enough that their willingness to settle—both professionally and personally—is still just a bit tragic.
The three first meet at a diner in a more reclusive part of NYC—Tobi’s choice apparently—and Lisa quickly introduces herself as a grad student working on a dissertation about the history of choreography. She’s there to pick Tobi’s well-traveled, ex-dancer brain. Stewart gracefully captures all the eccentricities of an artistic genius—a certain social awkwardness that manifests itself in any person who separates himself from meaningful relationships for too long balanced with a passion and excitement any time the conversation focuses exclusively on dance, which incidentally isn’t as often as you’d think (a point that eventually becomes a source of conflict).
Stewart’s ability to capture the anxiety of the situation—meeting someone new, already being a bit socially awkward, and then being asked to share intimate details of one’s life on tape—is paramount to the film’s success. There are a couple of surprises along the way—you may have guessed it, the couple is there under false pretenses—but this isn’t really a film about plot, it’s a film about human emotion. Certainly, the script’s choice to reveal each character’s secrets to the audience in conjunction with the characters’ confessions to each other helps the tension. We only know what they know. And so, far after we’d expect, the dialogue continues to be uneasy. When Tobi blurts out, “God, I used to love to perform cunnilingus” an hour in, you’re still not sure whether Lisa made a grave mistake sticking around. Are we really going there? But it’s this shared uncertainty between the audience and the characters that makes their decisions to slowly open up to each other more rewarding. This creates a feeling of investment in the risks they’re taking by opening up.
Of course, it must be said that the film’s best moments fall squarely at the film’s center—when the character of Mike is momentarily removed and Tobi and Lisa are left alone to discuss their life’s mistakes and non-mistakes. It’s almost as if the character of Mike only exists insomuch as it helps to illuminate some of the gray areas in the choices Tobi reveals. “I love my life. I regret my life. The lines eventually blur, and it’s just my life,” Tobi says at one point, nailing down the film’s conceptual heart.
But Mike. He’s an archetype: angry dude that needs to show off his masculinity. In a film about tension, it’s obvious that not explaining his anger earlier is all about creating curiosity and suspense, but it’s done in such a heavy-handed way that every line he delivers just serves as a distraction.
It’s when Tobi and Lisa are alone that the film truly hits its stride—and dance it does. When everything does play out, though, what’s left is a script that relies on a pretty overdone plot. But thanks to capable acting, it turns out just a conduit for the film’s real mission–capturing moments. The moment one learns to trust. The moment one learns to let go. The moment one tries once more.