Review 75: Backgammon (Thumbs Down)

Backgammon

Directed by Francisco Orvañanos

Starring Brittany Allen, Noah Silver, Alex Beh, Olivia Crocicchia

Released on March 11, 2016

Running time: 1h 29m

Not rated (Suggested rating: R for brief violence, language, heavy drinking, and brief nudity)

Genre: Drama, Thriller

I came across Backgammon by accident, as I felt that it had been a while since I reviewed something obscure. Though audiences (the few people that saw it) welcomed it with open arms, the critics had slammed it. Surprised at the contrast, I knew I’d have to take a look at the film. It was hard to find, but I was finally able to rent it on Amazon for eight bucks. Eight effing bucks. And I will never get those eight bucks back.

Because this movie is terrible.

Have you ever encountered a movie that thinks it’s so much deeper, more meaningful, more relevant, more philosophical, more transcendent, and more emotional than it really is? A movie that is desperate to be Oscar bait but ultimately winds up making itself look euphuistic and biggety? A film that holds its head high and looks down its nose at the masses? A film that screams, “I’m complex! I’m tortured! I’m smart! I’m intellectual! You should watch me and analyze every frame of me!”

Well, Backgammon is that film.

Normally I would go into detail on the film’s story while jabbing at it at random intervals, but the story here is so minimal and borderline nonexistent that I’ll just quickly sum it up. As you can imagine, I won’t have much to say, and this review will be shorter than normal.

There are four people at a house in seaside Maine. They are Miranda (Allen), her boyfriend Gerald (Beh), Lucian (Silver), and his girlfriend Elizabeth (Crocicchia). Okay, who on earth would name their son Lucian? Gerald is an abrasive, ostentatious artist and attention hog who only paints nudes of Miranda. He loves pissing everyone off by either quoting Baudelaire ad nauseam or showing that he clearly hasn’t taken Insults 101, and after an uncomfortable poker game in which he abuses Miranda, Miranda kicks him out of the house. We never learn what happens to Elizabeth, as she disappears from the house for some vague reason. Over the next day, for some reason, Lucian and Miranda begin to suspect that Gerald is still in the house, screwing with them, because one of Gerald’s paintings keeps being altered. Sexual tension between Lucian and Miranda starts building up to the point of being awkward and uncomfortable. This was the only thing preventing me from drifting off. Half for the discomfort, and half for the promise of sex. Miranda starts acting increasingly atypically. Lucian tries to leave the house, but the script won’t let him. One night, Miranda starts cutting her wrists for some reason, but Lucian stops her, and the incident is forgotten within minutes. A game of backgammon is played, and Miranda and Lucian have sex offscreen. Booooo. The next morning, Miranda reveals that she’s been the one altering Gerald’s painting, and that Gerald was never in the house. Quite literally out of nowhere, in a snore-worthy attempt at a twist ending which is executed with the same deftness as a little child trying to recreate Van Gogh’s  Starry Night, Miranda and Lucian discover Gerald’s corpse outside the house. Lucian decides that Miranda is crazy, and finally the script lets him leave the house. Well, we see Lucian go inside the house, presumably to go pack his things, but we never see him leave. And then the movie just kind of…ends. Scratch that; the movie sort of just…stops.

See? Instead of several pages of explanation of the plot, I have a slightly overlong paragraph.

It’s just a series of events rather than a structured, methodic story. And even those events take a back seat to what the movie really is. It’s all just a series of allegedly “abstruse”, “emotional”, “meaningful”, and “symbolic” “psychoanalyses”, “mind games”, and conversations on various topics. These vast swathes of walls of words are usually borderline incoherent, ambiguous to the point of insult, and filled to the brim with non sequiturs. I know that there were supposed to be Baudelaire quotes in there somewhere, but the rest of the awkwardly antiquated dialogue buries them. The dialogue clearly does not belong in a movie set in the 21st century or even the 20th…except when we hear lines of such discrepant vernacular. For example, one particular time in the movie, Miranda says this:

MIRANDA: A quiet feeling of liberation has come over me.

But another time in the movie, Lucian says this:

LUCIAN: [Talking about GERALD.] I can’t stand that guy…all he f—ing does is quote French poetry.

See what I mean? And the dialogue is even more painful because the actors are American instead of British. It’s like doing the same thing, only in a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, except in that play, the dialogue is actually well written, in its proper vernacular, and is actually deep and personal while also being comedic, and at times downright hilarious, especially with the explanation of the death of Bunbury.

I think that this movie was attempting to recreate a classic novel, perhaps written by Dickens, Austen, or Bronte, but failing to understand what made those books memorable, deep, emotional, unique, or good.

Throughout much of the film, I kept asking myself, What is even happening? because for long stretches of the almost-ninety-minute movie, literally nothing happens. I even kept asking myself, What even is the point? What is this movie trying to do? What are its makers trying to do? What is this movie’s purpose? What is it trying to say? What message is this movie trying to convey? And what is more, what am I even watching? Why am I even watching this? I certainly don’t regret watching this (I never do), but come on! It’s impossible to make your plot interesting when you pretty much have no plot at all. Also, the morning after I watched the film and did some research, I learned that the series of events in the film are told out of order. Not only is it astoundingly difficult to tell when that happens, but unless you’re Memento or The Prestige or a movie like that, telling your story out of order is an incredibly idiotic and confusing attempt to make the audience think that you’re oh so much cleverer than you really are.

Not only are the characters still as impassive and lifeless by the end of a film that entirely consists of so-called “character development”, but the acting is literally some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Even the acting giants at my high school put forth better performances (they are good actors, by the way). But I can’t even blame the actors – director Francisco Orvañanos directed them to act in such a way.

Brittany Allen as Miranda is supposed to be seductive, thereby adding to the already uncomfortable amount of sexual tension. But she steals across the movie with her mouth open, like Vince Vaughn in The Cell, but she’s so much more pretentious and vain. She makes awkward, unnatural facial expressions that try and fail to be sexy, and she inelegantly chortles after twelve too many of her lines. She just paces around the house showing off her large and mysterious array of frisky, toddlerish foibles. And she as a character is just as bad. She’s an insufferable but innocuous highbrow chatterbox. She and Lucian are obsessed with obsolete intellect, and she acts like a character from a presumptuous, self-important novel rather than a human. But what is more, she, Lucian, and Gerald throw tantrums, quote more poetry, and drink heavily out of what I can only describe as manic narcissism. But Miranda’s most prominent trait is that she went off her rocker long before the movie started.

Noah Silver as Lucian also walks around with his mouth slightly agape, also like Vince Vaughn in The Cell, trying to be daaaaark and brooooodiiiiing. Unfortunately, his attempts to be daaaaaaark and brooooooodiiiiiiing only result in a painfully banausic performance. Noah Silver’s face never exudes any emotion whatsoever save for one exceptionally creepy smile in the sequence before he and Miranda have sex. He as a character is beyond idiotic and is naïve to the point of ridicule. There is literally no explanation as to why he doesn’t just up and leave Miranda until the end of the film. The script just won’t let him leave, I guess. But seriously, when the object of your fleshly desire is acting like she’s a bomb about to go off, not to mention that she’s cutting herself and demanding that you play backgammon with her, it’s time for you to get the eff out of there. I know that you want to screw her to your heart’s content, but goddammit (and I’m totally stealing this from you; sorry, Sean), there are four billion vaginas in the world. You can find another one. Plus, he and Miranda lack any and every sort of what could be considered chemistry, and we never even learn the motives of his and Miranda’s clearly unhealthy relationship. Also, if how poorly our characters’ dialogue is written couldn’t get even more obvious, about of a third of the way into the film, this happens. Miranda nonchalantly tells Lucian that she thinks Gerald might be dead. And Lucian has absolutely no reaction to this. Oh, and there are two or three sequences in which Lucian showers in slow-mo. Why? I don’t know.

Alex Beh as Gerald is the equivalent of pepper spraying yourself. Not his acting, which, while being constantly overshadowed by Miranda’s “acting”, makes Jeremy Irons from Dungeons & Dragons or Meat Loaf Aday from Bloodrayne look Oscar-worthy, and the fact that I can’t tell whether he’s an American trying to be a Brit or if he’s British and trying to hide his accent. Rather, his horrifically constructed character. All he wants to do is earn the ire of everyone around him by quoting Baudelaire ad nauseam or spouting worse insults than when Avery Schreiber guest starred on The Muppet Show. Gerald is also a lousy painter. Even some of the artists at BYU-Idaho, where I’m attending college, do significantly better work. Besides being a crappy painter or an insufferable jackass, he’s also a helpless drunkard and he abuses Miranda. But when Gerald disappears from the house and Miranda suspects that he might still be there, there’s no sense of suspense, as not only do Miranda and Lucian rarely address the situation, but Gerald has never been presented as a threat. What could he do to Lucian and Miranda, anyway? Spout more poetry and worthless insults, abuse Miranda some more, and drink himself to death? What even was the point of such a plot thread, anyway?

Elizabeth shows up for two scenes and inexplicably disappears. That’s it.

I almost remember a fifth character, but if such a character existed s/he was only in the film for a single scene and for a few paltry minutes.

The movie says that it’s a psychological sexual mystery thriller. What? Where was that? Was it in some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen? Was it in the borderline nonexistent plot? Was it in the flat, dead characters? Was it in the barrages of allegedly deep dialogue that has no place in the 21st century or even the 20th? Was it in the unnecessary amount of increasingly uncomfortable sexual tension leading up to the inevitable but offscreen coitus? And what is more, where were the thriller elements? Where were the mystery elements? Where were the psychological elements? While some moments promise violence or a deeper mystery, the promises are never kept.

The film as a whole is tactless, egotistical, arrogant, and full of hubris. It tries to explain everything to you while not understanding its own material. Moments that are supposed to be subtle and subversive aren’t subtle and subversive enough. Moments that are supposed to be big, have gravitas, and hold magnitude are not big and lack gravitas or magnitude. Throughout the entire movie, we are led around on an increasingly uncomfortable leash by our Dynamic-less Duo, who lack the nuance and chemistry necessary to legitimize their performances and carry the movie. It tries and fails to set up the idea of Gerald still being in the house as a suspenseful situation, instead leaving us with zero buildup to the so-called “twist ending”. It similarly tries and fails to use its “deep” dialogue to lead to deeper questions about identity, instead leaving us with an unrelenting borefest consisting of not letting us get to know our characters beyond their own fustian vanity.

Also, the director’s name sounds like he’s trying to be the next Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González  Iñárritu, or Alejandro Jodorowsky.

When your film is this bad, the fact that it has admittedly nice camerawork as well as a nice balance of lights and darks is hardly consolation. But the film looks decent. There are some well done establishing shots of the beach and the house’s interior. If only the editing received so much attention.

As I watched this travesty, I didn’t get angry. Instead, I sat, staring at my computer screen, stupefied by how little actually was happening, and occasionally adding to my notes.

Am I just too stupid to see a deeper meaning? Am I just too stupid to see the genius of this film? Because if what I feel about this movie is stupidity, then in God’s name, I long not to become smart. Maybe there is a deeper meaning to this, and through what we can learn from this movie, we can all join together around a Backgammon board in a deep hole of poetic boredom. Because this is how close a movie can get to giving its audience literally nothing. It’s almost equivalent to staring at a blank screen for ninety minutes and imagining that there’s a much better movie playing.

The only reason Backgammon is not worse than Chaos is because while watching Backgammon, I didn’t feel personally attacked. But that’s hardly consolation.

By the way, I’ve never been able to get the hang of the actual game of Backgammon.

Final Verdict: Thumbs Down.

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