Mark Reviews Movies

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ned Benson

Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Jess Weixler, Ciarán Hinds, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Nina Arianda

MPAA Rating: R (for language and sexuality)

Running Time: 2:02

Release Date: 9/12/14 (limited); 9/19/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 18, 2014

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them does not play fair with the audience or its characters. Here is a movie about a chasm between two people caused by unspeakable grief that widens the gap and that puts words to the inexpressible. It's unfair because the rift expands due to contrived circumstances just when it should be shrinking and the words are those of a greeting card.

It also works unnecessarily hard to keep us at an emotional distance from its main characters, a married couple that has separated under mysterious circumstances. Both of the characters are at a place where the reason is the last thing either one wants to talk about, which puts us in the frustrating position of hearing characters talk and seeing character give knowing looks about, well, something that happened.

When we eventually learn what the impetus for the separation is, that's when the movie reveals itself as dishonest, playing the incident as a kind of emotional trump card. Ultimately, we can sympathize with the characters' impulse to remain mum on the issue as a concept, but that sympathy comes at the expense of any kind of genuine attachment to the characters and understanding of what they're experiencing.

What we get instead from writer/director Ned Benson's movie is a look at the meandering routine of two lives interrupted. One wants to move forward to new prospects, and the other wants to return to the way things were. Given what's happened, neither is really possible, but one has to admire Benson's optimism that somehow two improbable and conflicting goals can somehow both be achieved and be reconciled with each other. It's a quixotic view of grief and love but an admirable one, nonetheless.

The story opens with Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) in happier times. They dine at and dash from a New York City restaurant and, after the "dash" part, find themselves laughing and embracing on the grass in Central Park. In the next scene, Eleanor has ridden her bike to the middle of the Manhattan Bridge and climbs over the fence in a failed suicide attempt.

Eleanor returns to her parents' home. Her father (William Hurt), mother (Isabelle Huppert), and sister (Jess Weixler), who lives there with her son for unspecified reasons, want to support her, and that apparently includes not mentioning the most obvious thing on everyone's mind. The sister removes a framed photo from the stairwell. It's seemingly a picture of Eleanor and Conor, although once we see what it actually is near the very end of the movie, we realize how early and much Benson has toyed with our capacity to grasp what's happening to and between these characters. Dad sets her up in her old room and in a college class with an old colleague named Lillian (Viola Davis, who does a lot with a little and gets the movie's best line: "You must really hate the Beatles").

Conor, meanwhile, is trying to keep his restaurant in business. His best friend/chef Stuart (Bill Hader) runs into Eleanor on the street and lies to Conor about the meeting. Conor moves in with father (Ciarán Hinds), who also stays quiet on the pressing issue at hand. Soon, Conor starts stalking Eleanor, insisting that get together to talk about the thing about which nobody wants to talk. When a character we are just meeting starts flirting with him, we know that the inevitable result is going to be a gratuitous rationale to keep Conor and Eleanor apart for another stretch of time.

Sure enough, it is, and it comes at the point where Benson finally seems ready to let his characters communicate in a meaningful way about what has happened, how it has affected them, and maybe why a reconciliation is either possible or impossible. By then, the mystery has been revealed (It should be noted that its disclosure is appropriately subdued—almost an afterthought in the middle of another conversation), and it seems the ideal opportunity to bring these characters together in some form of recognition of the event. Instead, the momentum stalls for a manufactured reason, and it's not until the movie's commendably restrained climax that we have some real sense of Eleanor and Conor's shared grief.

Until then, the support for each of them is left to characters who speak in syrupy platitudes about life, loss, and all the rest of it. There's an irritating tendency for these scenes to end with one character repeating an earlier truism and reversing or otherwise altering it, as if the extent of emotional turmoil can be summed up by some wordplay.

The movie is a condensed version of two movies (subtitled Her and Him), each of which tells the story from one character's perspective (Those are currently scheduled for release later this year). One must wonder if some of the nuance has been lost in this compacted iteration, although it seems unlikely. It's inconsequential, of course, because The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is what's here at the present moment, and it stumbles on its own.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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