The original incarnation of Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby at least boasted a clever conceit meant to lure in audiences looking for a fresh take on the more tortuous aspects of a love story gone awry (the film, centered on the dissolution of a fraught marriage, was first a pair of films, one told from a “Him” perspective, one from a “Her”), so it’s disappointing that the first version of the film to make its way to theaters is instead a Frankenstein-ed version of two films titled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. Robbed of its somewhat unique narrative style – clearly, Benson is a big fan of the 1973 television movie Divorce His, Divorce Hers, a single film that chops itself into two in service to the same technique Benson used for his first set of films – the weaknesses of Benson’s plot are laid bare, and Them will likely keep most movie-goers from seeking out Him and Her when they hit screens later this year.
Despite its narrative flourishes, the actual plot of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (um, all of them) is relatively straightforward. We first meet the eponymous Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and her eventual husband Conor (James McAvoy) during the tail end of a romantic dinner date, a relaxed affair that takes on an insufferable bent when the pair run out on their bill, only to collapse on each other in a fit of giggles, pleased that they’ve broken the law and stiffed their waiter (the scene takes on an even darker cast when it’s later revealed that Conor owns his own restaurant, making their dine-and-dashing that much more offensive and odd). Eleanor and Conor aren’t nice people, and kicking off the feature with a sequence that’s both strangely unlikable and weirdly rote is a bizarre choice on Benson’s part. Is this what we’re in for? Bad romantic tropes, worse behavior, and the lunk-headed appearance of fireflies (which literally fly into and out of the narrative with little reason)? Well, yes.
Soon after the apparent check-ditching flashback, we dive deeper into Eleanor and Conor’s marriage, which appears to have suffered some sort of massive disruption (we’ll later discover what happened between the pair during a particularly uninspired and exposition-heavy scene), the kind that has unnerved the pair in different ways. For most of Them, the pair are apart, Eleanor having left Conor after a wrenching (and, through Benson’s work, a visually tense and well-made) event, and the film charts the bits that led up to it and the pair’s bumbling attempts to reach a new normal. Conor stalks Eleanor. Eleanor goes back to school. We find out what really happened. The two-hour film feels twice as long as it actually is.
The majority of Them appears to have been culled from Eleanor’s perspective, which makes any argument in favor of Her seem, frankly, kind of useless. We’ve seen Eleanor’s story and her version of it, and it’s difficult to imagine Her adding anything new to that particular conversation. Although Conor gets short shrift in Them, the film also doesn’t make Him that appealing (see the problem here?), because what we do see of Conor is all dark and dirty (save for brief, wonderful appearances by his best friend, played by Bill Hader), enough to make the concept of spending more time with him also sound like a terrible idea. Them doesn’t function as its own production, but it also doesn’t intrigue its audience to check out Benson’s original versions – it fails when it comes to both of its aims.
Despite its convoluted mechanics, Them is relatively easy to follow even when it bears down on its time switches, and specific lighting and color schemes serve as simple signals as to whose story we’re seeing at any given time (Eleanor’s is lighter, Conor’s is clearly darker). Perhaps the whole thing would be more powerful it if was told as a linear story, but that would rob Benson of one of the reasons he made the film to begin with (to slowly unfurl what happened to put his characters in such a sad situation), and hasn’t he lost enough of the film’s bones already?
At least Chastain and McAvoy are doing top-notch work here, and although Eleanor and Conor are extremely unlikable, both actors are able to turn them into fully developed (and, yes, understandable) characters during the course of the film. The film’s supporting cast is also solid, with Hader providing plenty of comic relief and such outstanding names as Viola Davis, Ciaran Hinds, Jess Weixler, Isabelle Huppert, and William Hurt popping in and out to deliver fine work.
Benson might be a victim of his own success here – Them was created after the film (well, again, the first two films) sold to The Weinstein Company at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and cobbling the two together into one feature was most likely the idea of a distributor interested in making a single film to get a more audience-friendly return on their investment, a real boner of an idea that probably deflated Benson’s happiness at selling the thing – and at least he’s got the creativity and drive to see his ideas through to fruition. It’s just a shame that’s not what he gets to show the first round of wide audiences who will see any Eleanor Rigby, a middle of the road feature that disappears before the credits even roll.
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