It’s not uncommon for popular culture to remind us that we only have one shot at life, so we should be sure to live it to the fullest. The truest sentiments are often the most clichéd, however, and it’s hard to express that these days without coming across as hackneyed. (Remember “YOLO?” Let’s forget that happened.)
In Match, playwright-turned-director Stephen Belber wisely attempts to make that idea fresh again by adding a moral wrinkle: what if living life to the fullest means hurting the people around you? It’s a theme most viewers will relate to – is anyone happy without also having regrets? – but one inherently rooted in conflict. It’s telling that when Match turns its focus to other ideas, it starts to unravel: this idea is worth reflecting on.
Based on Belber’s play, Match follows world-renowned dancer and Juilliard professor Tobi Powell (Patrick Stewart) as he’s interviewed by two strangers. Lisa (Carla Gugino) claims to be a student writing her dissertation on dance, while her husband Mike (Matthew Lillard) accompanies her to run the tape recorder. The conversation starts out innocently enough – Tobi seems rather full of himself, and can’t resist discussing all of his accomplishments – but things get heated when the questions turn to Tobi’s sexual adventures in the liberated ’60s, and he finds himself forced to confront secrets long buried.
Unfortunately, the film is so full of sudden narrative turns that, while it succeeds in surprising, it also feels thematically overstuffed. Belber attempts to examine everything from the inherent selfishness of artistic creation to the trauma one generation can inflict on the next to the complexities of a broken marriage, but there’s little connective tissue. Part of the problem is that Mike, the character in whom these concerns most strongly intersect, disappears during the second act. While this adds an engaging, more optimistic tonal shift after an emotionally raw turning point, it also transforms the film from a mystery into a relationship drama, a risky move that intrigues while simultaneously depleting most of the tension.
Only Stewart emerges from the rocky tonal shifts unscathed, adding just enough flamboyance to his commanding gravitas to keep Tobi a fascinating enigma, even during the second half’s more mawkish moments. He adds just enough menace to lines that sound outwardly charming to let us know that he may seem like a slightly-built pot-smoking dancer, but he’s not someone to be trifled with. Even by the end of the film, which resolves matters a bit too neatly, one feels as though Stewart still has a whirlwind inside him; no matter how happy he seems, regret is always close by.
Unfortunately, Lillard is both miscast and underserved by the material. Not only does he struggle to project the dangerous mix of anger and hurt simmering beneath Mike’s gruff exterior, the script ignores him in the second act to focus on Lisa. Gugino manages to deliver a compelling, nuanced performance, but her storyline feels co-opted from a different film in which the Mike-Tobi dynamic wasn’t so explosive.
Like Tape, Belber’s other three-person play about confronting past trauma, Match is an exploration of hidden agendas, truth, and whether convincing someone to admit to past mistakes is really helpful in the long run. While it doesn’t have as much bite as that previous effort and struggles to juggle several subplots, its central mystery poses intriguing questions about the nature of responsibility and how individual decisions can have lasting effects. None of the characters feel one-dimensional; each twist reveals new, unexpected details about their lives and, perhaps more importantly, how they view themselves as a result. Match isn’t perfect, but there are far worse things to reflect on. Especially since we only live once.