Every Chekhov adaptation presents unhappiness in its own way, albeit typically at a country house where a tense family gathering exposes each character’s underlying discontent. Loosely based on The Seagull, writer and director Christian Camargo’s debut feature, Days and Nights, unfolds during Memorial Day 1984, when Reagan’s America offered Cold War propaganda, a deadly immunodeficiency virus, and an atmosphere of stifled creativity.
There’s a touch of Grey Gardens to the New England lake house owned by Elizabeth (Allison Janney), an actress who brings her latest paramour home for the holiday weekend. Camargo casts himself as the outsider, Peter, a Hollywood director who becomes the focus of desire, resentment, and hostility. Peter immediately senses a ruinous despair and boredom born of overfamiliarity.
Days and Nights is best when this interdependent community becomes unhinged, as in the mock trial of Elizabeth’s troubled son Eric (Ben Whishaw). Her mischievous brother Herb (William Hurt at full tilt) jumps in as judge and anarchic caretaker Johan (Michael Nyqvist) takes the defense, demonstrating their kinship with Ben, a multimedia artist frustrated by the family compound’s insularity and complacency. Camargo employs his own family ties (wife Juliet Rylance is Eric’s flighty muse; her mother, Claire van Kampen, composed the wistful score; and her stepfather, Mark Rylance, plays a protective ornithologist), and there’s a wonderful ease to this eccentric ensemble cast.
But at 92 minutes, Days and Nights feels choppy and hurried, pushing the narrative toward inevitable tragedy rather than exploring how these dispirited people got there.