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Match

D: Stephen Belber / 92m

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Carla Gugino, Matthew Lillard, Jaime Tirelli

Tobi Powell (Stewart) is an aging ballet instructor at Juilliard. He’s a lonely man, given to rejecting offers of friendship from his colleagues, and he lives by himself in an apartment in New York’s Inwood hamlet. Despite this he agrees to give an interview to Lisa Davis (Gugino) who is writing a dissertation on the dance community during the Sixties. Accompanied by her husband, Mike (Lillard), the three meet in Tobi’s favourite Greek diner. Lisa is bright and attentive to Tobi’s flamboyant personality, while Mike is more reserved. The interview continues at Tobi’s apartment, but Mike, who is ostensibly there to support his wife, begins to ask more pointed questions about the Sixties and in particular, Tobi’s sexual liaisons.

Tobi is initially perplexed by Mike and Lisa’s focus on the sexual mores of the period until they mention the name of a dancer he knew called Gloria Rinaldi. Tobi had a brief affair with her in the latter part of 1967, but she gave up a potential career as a dancer to have a child. That child is Mike and he thinks Tobi is his father. Tobi denies being this and tells them both that it would have been impossible as he always wore a condom in those days. Mike doesn’t believe him and becomes aggressive; Tobi asks them both to leave. Instead, Mike refuses and pins down Tobi so he can take a DNA swab from Tobi’s mouth. Having got what he came for, he leaves, but not before Lisa has made it clear that she’s unhappy with the way things have gone.

While Mike heads for a nearby forensics lab where a friend works, Lisa stays with Tobi and they begin to bond over prune pastries and Tobi’s love of knitting. He lets her know he can see the cracks in her marriage to Mike, and Lisa admits Mike has become a different man in recent months as the idea of finding and confronting Tobi has eaten away at him. Moved by Lisa’s honesty, Tobi shows a newspaper clipping he’s kept from when Mike was fifteen and he’d taken part in a fencing competition. He reveals that he knew Gloria was pregnant and that she asked him to be the child’s father but he refused; instead he decided to focus on building his career. And when he saw the newspaper clipping he sent Gloria a sum of money towards Mike’s college fund. But with all this he still can’t be Mike’s father: it’s all too late.

When Mike returns to the apartment, both men are forced to confront some unpleasant truths about each other, while Lisa is left to hope that some degree of reconciliation can be found.

Match - scene

Originally a stage play by writer/director Belber that opened in 2004 (and featured Frank Langella, Jane Adams and Ray Liotta as Tobi, Lisa and Mike respectively), Match still retains the look and feel of a stage play and the type of staging that betrays its theatrical origins. That’s not an entirely bad thing, but it does contribute to several occasions during the narrative where certain developments feel artificial and/or forced.

There’s always a degree of contrivance that accompanies a theatrical adaptation, and Match is no exception. In opening out his play from the constraints of Tobi’s apartment, Belber has chosen to also constrict it (the play ran half an hour longer), and while this possibly helps, there is still a sense that the story gets a little rushed once the trio reach Tobi’s humble abode. Following a number of flamboyant embellishments to his answers, and as many sidetrack comments as he can muster, Tobi is side-swiped by Mike’s bullish demeanour, and while there’s an argument that the movie needs to pick up some speed – and get to the crux of the matter – by this point, it’s done in such a clumsy way that Belber’s careful character building is given the cinematic equivalent of a knee-capping.

From here on until the end of the movie, Match struggles to regain the momentum it has carefully built up, and the characters’ attempts at connecting with each other become more unlikely and more laboured. Tobi and Lisa at one point have a discussion about the pleasures of giving and receiving cunnilingus, as unlikely a conversation as any that two strangers would have within a couple of hours of meeting. They go through Tobi’s collection of self-made knitwear and go up to the roof where Tobi tries to get Lisa to dance. It’s uncomfortably like a courtship, and despite Tobi’s obvious homosexuality, these events still provoke an uncertainty about Belber’s motives in putting these two characters together for so long. And when Mike returns, his confrontation with Tobi is resolved – with admirable speed, but at the expense of a fair degree of credibility.

With the narrative proving unwieldy and uneven, it’s a good thing that Belber has chosen well with his cast. Tobi is the kind of camp, peacockish character that an actor of Stewart’s calibre can bring to life with the twitch of an eyebrow, or the shake of a scarf. He dominates the movie, revelling in Tobi’s arch, semi-pretentious musings, his passion for life at odds with his self-enforced solitude, and still having an insatiable curiosity about the lives of others. It’s a performance that appears effortless, and Stewart is hypnotic throughout, smoothing over the cracks in Belber’s script with a well-timed expression here and a well-considered line reading there. He’s ably supported by Gugino, though Lisa appears largely out of her depth in the situation, two steps away from being entirely subordinate to her husband. When Tobi recognises the problems in their marriage, Gugino shows Lisa to be a woman looking for the answers to questions she hasn’t thought of, and displays the character’s sad-hearted vulnerability with admirable understated precision.

Unfortunately for Lillard, Mike is required to be a kind of aggressive deus ex machina, bulldozing his tight-lipped way through Tobi’s rambling reminiscences and being unnecessarily abusive to Lisa. It’s a dangerously underwritten part, but Lillard manages to salvage some of the pent-up sadness and disappointment Mike has been feeling throughout his life, and he makes it all the more evident when he challenges Tobi’s assertion that Gloria chose her life.

Belber proves to be an erratic director, depending too much on close ups to impart sincere emotion, and never quite knowing where to place the camera in Tobi’s apartment, leading to some odd framing that sees the characters either squeezed into shot and/or suffering a kind of temporary dismemberment. The scene at the forensics lab is dramatically unnecessary (but does remind us that Mike is still part of the story), and the ending, while entirely predictable, is an example of the way in which Belber wants to both punish and celebrate Tobi’s decision all those years ago, but can’t make up his mind which is the more appropriate.

Rating: 6/10 – with strong, committed performances from its main cast, Match maintains the audience’s interest despite some clumsy, ill-considered plot developments and a sense that it’s all a bit too overwrought for it’s own good; the fact that it’s taken ten years to reach the screen may give potential viewers enough of a warning, however, not to expect too much.

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