The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, written and directed by Ned Benson, is such a strained, indulgent talkfest that it’s sometimes hard to hear, beneath the verbiage, the cries of pain that keep it humming — the potent masochistic fantasy of lovers suddenly left alone, staring a world they can’t be part of, trying to figure out “who they are.” Anyone who has ever ended a relationship and taken long walks in the rain will relate, at least until the characters open their mouths.
The movie is more famous for what it was supposed to be and isn’t now: dual (and dueling) features subtitled Her and Him, each from the perspective of the estranged wife and husband — Eleanor Rigby (yes, that’s her name, thanks to parents named “Rigby” who evidently anticipated her loneliness), played by Jessica Chastain, and Conor, played by James McAvoy. After some unsuccessful screenings, the two films were cut together to resemble something more conventional, and I can say — having seen Her and Him, which will both be released in October — that little is lost apart from the work’s ostensible reason for being.
That raison d’etre — as asserted via Descartes in one of those explanatory lectures within the film — is that each person has a different, equally valid reality, that the there is “a concept of subject and subjectivity,” that the “faculty of knowing lies within the subject and his head … the relational something something something.” I never was very good at taking notes in class. In any case, the merging of the two films would be an artistic tragedy indeed if Descartes' notions came through after you see both parts in succession. But what you really get is her walking around for an hour and 45 minutes and then him walking around for about the same time. There are lots of narrative gaps, but no indication that each has his or her own distinct perception of reality. In Them, the parts actually fit together too smoothly.
The plot? It’s somewhat scrambled temporally, but it’s basically boy has hot sex with girl, boy marries girl, boy loses girl for unspecified (at first) reasons, boy stalks girl, girl sort of comes back to boy, girl leaves, boy walks in the rain … In her childhood Connecticut home, Eleanor cuts her hair and tries to grope her way towards the light, aided by her professor dad (William Hurt), her wine-swilling French mom (Isabelle Huppert), her bubbly sister (Jess Weixler), and that Descartes-invoking professor (Viola Davis at half mast). Conor jumps through more predictable hoops. He’s bewildered that she could just “disappear” into the bosom of her parents and then go back to school. He doesn’t see what he did wrong. Apart from trying to figure that out, he works to keep his bar financially afloat, kibitzing with his chef (a bright, tart Bill Hader) and hostess (Nina Arianda in another part that taps a fraction of her gifts). Parents figure strongly: Eleanor’s keep romance alive (despite her mother's evident alcohol problem), while Conor’s famous restaurateur dad (Ciaran Hinds) never keeps a wife very long. She’d like to be like her mom and dad; he doesn’t want to end up like his dad.
The fundamental problem is that Eleanor and Conor — Chastain and McAvoy — don’t have a lot of chemistry. Benson shows them frolicking and kissing, being horny kids in the park with her dress hiked up, but we never get a glimpse of their post-infatuation togetherness, of what they were like when they were married. Their rhythms and interests are different. We never know apart from the fact that they’re both cute as hell what makes their union worth preserving.
Movies so often come down to whether you like staring at an actor’s face for two hours, and I confess that Jessica Chastain’s does it for me, big time. It’s not just her finely chiseled features, but the expressiveness of her (here, black-rimmed) eyes. Even when her lines are impossibly overexplicit, she weighs her words in a way that suggests both her intelligence and emotional skittishness. I know some women who are over the moon about McAvoy, but Conor’s role is more generic, and he doesn’t have the same kind of magnetism. He’s mostly submerged.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them doesn’t get past the good try stage, but it’s not an abject failure. There are fine, intense scenes — McAvoy and Hader have an entertaining punch-up in the bar’s kitchen — and the soundtrack has its poignant moments. It’s hard to resist bits like the one in which Eleanor shows up at the bar after a long time, the employees freeze in amazement, and Conor walks in casually — and then he freezes in amazement. Chastain’s Eleanor really is an amazing woman, even if she leaves and comes back and leaves and comes back. You have to be a bit of a sap to enjoy this movie — probably not what the Descartes-spouting Benson was aiming for — but, hey: Jessica Chastain.