You would expect a film based on an Anton Chekov play to be theatrical, but “Days and Nights,” inspired by Chekov’s “The Seagull,” suffers from an excess of this sense of being onstage. A wonderful ensemble cast that includes William Hurt and Allison Janney portrays a family facing their demons on Memorial Day weekend 1984, in the country house of Janney, who plays a successful, neurotic, overbearing actress.
Janney leaves Manhattan for her country home to meet her beloved, ailing brother, a quirky, unhinged Hurt, who is attended by a live-in physician (Jean Reno). Janney’s son Eric (Ben Whisaw) is a fragile, defensive young man trying to impress the guests, especially his mom, with his film installation, starring his muse and winsome repository of his hopes, dreams and unrequited love, Eva.
Unfortunately for Eric, Janney brings her elusive boyfriend with her, a famous film director, and his attraction to Eva causes widespread jealousy and reprisals. On the sidelines, the property’s caretakers include Katie Holmes as a bored, enigmatic young mother, and her ornithologist husband (Mark Rylance), obsessively caring for a bald eagle and her egg.
This is the kind of story where plots converge and everyone’s lives are “forever changed” and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s the intoning of unnatural lines that ring false, lines that aren’t supposed to sound natural maybe, but that I found hard to swallow.
This isn’t exactly a criticism, because I think the tone was intentional and so therefore successfully executed, I just don’t find it affecting. You have this entirely naturalistic setting in which people are talking like no one actually talks. It may have worked, but it didn’t work for me.
Also, the whole movie isn’t like this. Sometimes, it’s almost like the characters forgot to play-act, and just acted. Despite the theatrical mannerisms, the story can’t help but periodically pick up steam and become compelling. I don’t think that was a bad film, I just didn’t connect with it.
There are some movies that I think you’re insane if you like, or don’t like, but this does not fall into these categories. Enjoying “Days and Nights,” particularly if you’re into Chekov, is a defensible position, one that I don’t happen to share. Its intentions are too obvious, its sensibility too pronounced. It’s a play about playing, but that might be one play too many for me.