Thursday, March 10, 2016

Backgammon: Lifestyles of the Rich and Neurotic

Miranda sure loves to play that ancient board game. Maybe her house guest Lucian should try to cross her up with a game of Acey-deucey. It probably wouldn’t matter. She is a much better games-player than he is. The rich and neurotic will duly play each other in Francisco OrvaƱanos’s hothouse chamber drama Backgammon (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

The idea was for Lucian to chill out with his uptight girlfriend Elizabeth and his well-heeled pal Andrew, at the latter’s family vacation home while on break from Yale. Unfortunately, they arrive finding Andrew’s sister Miranda and her parasite boyfriend Gerald are already there, drinking and bickering like characters in an early draft of a Tennessee Williams play. Andrew bails almost immediately and Elizabeth will soon follow him. She is especially keen to leave when she apparently catches Lucian in a somewhat compromising position with Miranda.

Realizing what a drag Gerald is, she finally gives the supposed painter the heave-ho. According to Miranda, he left in a snit, but Lucian starts to suspect Gerald has returned to play petty mind games with them. The prime evidence is a large unfinished nude study of Miranda that someone has steadily worked on since his departure. That actually might be a decent device for generating suspense if there was any sense of danger in Backgammon (aside from the very real possibility someone might develop cirrhosis of the liver). Instead, OrvaƱanos strangely opts to avoid any such tacky thriller elements.

As a result, it is hard to say just what Backgammon is supposed to be. There is a fair degree of tension, but it is mostly rooted in the characters’ obsessive hang-ups. Consider it a peak into the privileged world of the rich and neurotic. They certainly make middle class respectability look appealing.

Still, you have to give Brittany Allen credit for a rather bold performance. Sometimes kittenish and sometimes twitchy, she always conveys a sense Miranda is just a McMansion full of trouble. On the other hand, Noah Silver’s Lucian is duller than dishwater. At least Alex Beh seems to enjoy Gerald’s boorish behavior, whereas Olivia Crocicchia appears just as bored by Elizabeth’s joyless nagging as the rest of us are.

There are a handful of revelations that suggest Backgammon was originally envisioned as an exercise in suspense of some sort, but there are never any stakes at risk. It is just a perfectly good getaway weekend sabotaged by the dysfunctional characters. Allen is weirdly fascinating to watch, but even she cannot jumpstart the film’s energy level. A baffling oddity that doesn’t really have a niche to fill, Backgammon opens tomorrow (3/11) in New York, at the Cinema Village.