Adapted from Stephen Belber’s play of the same name, Match contains only three characters: troubled married couple Lisa and Mike (Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard) and the sixtysomething Juilliard dance teacher, Tobi (Patrick Stewart), they’re visiting New York to interview. The film threatens, for its first third, to be one of those old-school, theatrically sourced mysteries like Sleuth, rife with diabolical plot twists and power reversals. But as it unfolds, any secrets contained herein are either revealed or made patently obvious, and it turns out to have been a character study all along—a portrait of the charming, garrulous, and profoundly sad Tobi. It’s a role that Stewart throws himself into, savoring every barked bon mot and extravagant gesture. For all the hard work put in by everyone else, Match feels like a one-man show.
Stewart’s disproportionate share of the burden is partly due to the film’s abrupt U-turn into sentimental territory after a tense and tantalizing first act that’s pregnant with suppressed violence and indefinable sexual frisson. That promising start is reminiscent of Belber’s earlier play, Tape, in its setting up of a potentially explosive conflict stemming from a deep secret involving its three characters. It soon becomes apparent that the oddly anxious visitors, ostensibly interviewing Tobi for Lisa’s dissertation on dance communities in the ’60s, have a hidden agenda. An increasingly agitated and hostile Mike starts to dominate the interview, his questions focusing ever more closely on Tobi’s sexual history. Tobi’s sexual preferences—kept oblique from the outset—suddenly become relevant, prompting revelations and physical confrontations alike.
Up to this point, Match is a complicated tease of a movie, boasting the same corrosive edge as Tape. However, with the subsequent temporary exit of one character, the tone changes jarringly and implausibly, abandoning knotty moral quandaries for easy life-affirming pablum about forgiveness and coming to terms with one’s past mistakes. As the characters’ complexity is undermined and the questions raised early on are answered in pat, convenient ways, what initially feels like a milder version of Death and the Maiden begins to resemble a sit-down with Oprah.
The adaptation is further handicapped by its redundancy. There was no real need for a filmed version of the play and the strain shows. Belber tries to open things up visually and geographically, but the action remains stagey and static. As far as pleasures unique to the adaptation go, that only leaves what’s brought to the table by the new cast. Lillard and Gugino are fine in their respective roles despite the former not quite matching Ray Liotta, his Broadway counterpart, in his capacity for suggesting repressed rage. But Stewart, temporarily freed of franchise responsibilities, almost makes the whole thing worthwhile. The foppish Tobi feels like a melancholy riff on the actor’s public perception as a puckish, sexually omnivorous figure, and as such the role feels like it was written for him. It’s an irrepressible and improbably entertaining performance, alive with feverish energy and florid line deliveries—practically an argument for Belber to jettison everything else and take Stewart on the road as a one-man spoken-word act.