Director Stephen Belber's Match is an uneven but ultimately tender portrait of the kinship that can arise between strangers.
It centers on Tobi Powell (Patrick Stewart), a dance teacher living a solitary life in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Tobi's life is upended when Mike and Lisa Davis show up to interview him about his dance career on the rather thin pretext that Lisa is writing her dissertation about dance in the 1960s. This pretext falls apart when it is revealed that Lisa and Mike are actually on a mission to determine whether Tobi is Mike's biological father.
Mike, a cop (played by Matthew Lillard with maximum meat-and-potatoes, real-American bellicosity), arrives angry and judgmental at his presumed father. Tobi serves as Mike's foil, calling him a "fascist" in the face of Mike's assertion that the dancer is a "faggot." The first half of the film relies a little too heavily on this dichotomy, giving neither character much space for nuance within their respective prejudices. This stark split between art and life, artists and Regular Joes, is exasperating at times. Belber's screenplay, adapted from his 2004 stage play, hammers the point too hard. When Tobi asks Mike what his favorite part of being a cop is, he responds, "Certitude."
Match is best when it lets the complex inner worlds of its characters shine through, rather than overburdening them to explain their motivations. Stewart's performance swings between awkward, scenery-chewing flamboyance and delicate brokenness. The relationship that develops between Lisa (Carla Gugino) and Tobi permits Stewart to mellow into his own virtuosity, while Gugino's performance brilliantly conveys the sadness and isolation of her marriage to Mike.
This bond between Lisa and Tobi carries Match. Stewart coaxes Gugino's vulnerable figure to extend her arms and, as he puts it, "Let the world move through you." This moment—the two figures with their arms out, standing on a rooftop on the northern tip of Manhattan—is among the film's most affecting scenes. We begin to shake off the claustrophobia of the theatrical one-room set in which the rest of the action unfolds.
Like an increasing number of contemporary American films, Match deals with the legacy of the 1960s and the generational conflict between baby boomers and their offspring. Belber's screenplay attempts, at times successfully, to ask difficult questions about the ethics of sexual liberation and its fallout, as Mike considers his fatherless childhood to be a casualty of the '60s.
At other times, the script has Stewart blurting out cringe-worthy one-liners like "I would have loved to taste her gelato." But when Match hits the mark, it reveals its characters' lives as richer than what they have to say about life—or art.
This article appeared in print with the headline, "No uncertain terms."