There’s a great deal of suffering going on in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them”—unfortunately, among the audience as well as the characters onscreen. This is a film made by a person (writer-director Ned Benson) who appears to have seen entirely too many Ingmar Bergman pictures and is determined to emulate them but—as the title indicates—with a nod in the direction of the Beatles’ take on the solitary life, too. The result is a glum, torpid tale of grief and loneliness that’s intended to be profound but instead is simply dull.
The film actually begins promisingly, with a brief prologue showing how Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy) get together. In a sequence that recalls some of the wild exuberance of the New Wave, they skip out of a restaurant without paying the check and then, winded after being chased, tumble together on the grass. But after this brief moment of happy abandon, the air of gloom sets in. Benson abruptly takes us forward to a point when the couple has separated in the aftermath of a family tragedy, which will be revealed in due course and come as absolutely no surprise when it does. And a somber Eleanor attempts suicide by jumping off a bridge. She’s rescued, however, and returns to the home of her parents—retired musician Mary (Isabelle Huppert) and NYU psychology professor Julian (William Hurt)—where her sister Katy (Jess Weixler) also lives with her young son. Julian will arrange for Eleanor to sign up for a class at Cooper Union with a hard-nosed colleague, Lillian Friedman (Viola Davis), who might be able to help his daughter reorient her life.
Meanwhile Conor is still living in their disheveled apartment while trying to make a go of a bar he runs in the Village, where his buddy Stuart (Bill Hader) is the cook. He’s also attempting to locate his wife, neither with much success. Eventually unable to pay the rent, he moves in with his father Spencer (Ciaran Hinds), a well-to-do restaurateur whose place might have lost some of its old luster but is still “in.” Eventually he’ll take over Spencer’s place and, apparently, give it a new burst of popularity, though even there a pervasive mood of ennui prevails.
Eleanor and Conor also make contact again and the reason for their estrangement is disclosed—though not gone into in great detail. They don’t get back together, however, and some time passes before a final scene in which a still morose Conor goes for a walk in the Manhattan night and a figure is glimpsed following him, who turns out to be Eleanor. One can read that ending in a number of ways, but whichever one you choose, it can hardly be read as joyous.
And it’s also characteristic of the film as a whole. It’s a long, monotonous portrayal of melancholy broken only occasionally by the occasional outbursts of Eleanor’s young nephew (Wyatt Ralff), the pleasantly straightforward observations delivered by the always reliable Hinds as Spencer, and the sharp comments of Stuart, played slyly by Hader. Otherwise the endless shots of the characters ruminating sadly on their circumstances or walking dourly through cold urban landscapes and conversations that more often than not sound contrived and literary. The scenes between Eleanor and Friedman haven’t the slightest note of reality to them, and periodically characters simply blurt out speeches that seem utterly out of place. Why would Mary (whom Huppert portrays blandly), for example, suddenly tell Eleanor that she never wanted children? (To be sure, she’s always portrayed as never without a glass of wine in her hand, so perhaps it’s the result of tipsiness. But Benson apparently means it to be profound.) Later on, Julian (whom Hurt plays haltingly, ratcheting up his usual high quota of diffidence) tells his daughter a story about a near-tragedy involving the two of them many years before at what seems a quite inopportune moment, except perhaps for Benson.
Of course, “Eleanor Rigby” has virtues. Chastain, as always, is a luminous presence, though in this instance the glow is distinctly muffled. McAvoy too is an engaging performer, but his natural amiability is similarly enervated. Chris Balauvelt’s cinematography has an icy sheen that reflects the material’s tone. And Hinds and Hader provide some welcome relief.
One can also admire the fact that “Them” is the result of cinematic surgery. Benson shot the tale from two separate perspectives—Eleanor’s and Conor’s—and cobbled them into a pair of features, “Him” and “Her.” This release represents a melding of the two, with more than an hour of their original footage excised, and Benson and editor Kristina Boden deserve credit for a skillful remodeling job. But merely shortening and rearranging can’t rectify problems already existing in the material—though in this instance the benefit of shortening should not be underestimated.
In any event, viewers will have an opportunity to judge for themselves when “Him” and “Her” are released separately later this year. After seeing “Them,” however, one must wonder whether there will be many takers.