'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' winds up being frustrating

Friday, September 19, 2014 | by: Mat DeKinder

There is an admirable ambition behind “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” that, when combined with the beautifully-acted performances of the two leads, makes you really want to root for it.

Unfortunately, when it doesn’t quite work, it’s the disappointment that lingers more than anything else.

“Eleanor Rigby” is actually three movies, so stick with me here as it gets a little complicated.

The story centers on the tragic shattering of a marriage between Connor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain). It was originally conceived as two movies subtitled “Him” and “Her” and told the story from the perspective of Connor and Eleanor separately.

The version I saw was subtitled “Them” and served as a mashup of the two movies, which becomes a much more conventional, weighty drama where attractive people deal with the Crushing Difficulties of Life while never setting foot outside of New York City.

I can’t emphasize enough how great McAvoy and Chastain are here, and their chemistry is so electric it is a shame they don’t share the screen more than they do.

For most of the movie, though, they are struggling to get on with their lives without each other. Connor moves in with his emotionally distant father (Ciaran Hinds) while he continues to operate a failing restaurant with his best friend (Bill Hader).

Eleanor moves back home to live with her parents (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert) and her sister (Jess Weixler). Eleanor seems as fragile as a porcelain doll and fills her days trying not to cry and taking classes at a local university where she befriends a kindred-spirit professor (Viola Davis).

You really couldn’t ask for a better cast as they clamp right down on the over-written dialogue from writer/director Ned Benson and make it sound like words actual people might really say in an actual conversation.

There is something about this movie that feels hollow and disjointed, devoid of real-world experience. It’s like a tragedy workshop where heartbreaking scenarios are drawn out of a hat and everyone just spitballs what his or her reaction might be.

This is Benson’s first feature and there is no question the dude is talented, but “Them” feels like a compromise and makes you wonder if his ambition got the best of him.

I remain remarkably curious about “Him” and “Her” as it is easy to imagine a world where this whole thing works much better as separate stories. The focus would then shift off of the tragedy and the couple’s potential reconciliation and instead become about how different one story looks through two pairs of eyes.

“Him” and “Her” will both be released on a much smaller scale later this year and only then will we know if “Them” was made to strengthen two wafer-thin movies that can barely stand on their own, or if it is a marketing ploy based on the realization only the nerdiest of movie nerds (like myself) would sit through what is essentially the same film twice.

Until then, we are left with “Them” which is a brilliantly-acted, overly-long, overly-mopey, light-on-plot character-study that may, or may not, be greater than the sum of its parts.

That is why “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” winds up being a frustrating movie-going experience. You just aren’t sure if you are watching the movie’s best possible version of itself.

“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is rated R for language.

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