Rating:A young couple runs out on a restaurant tab in Manhattan’s East Village. On the lam, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy) run into a curiously rat-free park where he falls to the lawn and she gently wrassles him. Conor tells Eleanor, ”There’s only one heart in this body. Have mercy on me.” This is how writer-director Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them opens. The next time we see Eleanor, she’s biking across a bridge and stops to jumps off. Is she driven to suicide by overwrought dialogue? It isn’t till the end of the film that we sort of learn what happened that drove her to such a dire impasse. By then the flat characters and half-shaped plot have long ago failed to make us care.
Who are these people? Just ask. Eleanor tries to convince a professor, Lillian Friedman (Viola Davis), to let her take her class at Cooper Union. “I don’t even know you who are.” “I don’t know either.” Eleanor is the daughter of a Beatle-obsessed psychologist named Rigby and a classical violinist. Conor is the son of a chef, which makes running out on a tab that much more douchey. After her suicide attempt, Eleanor moves into her parents’ house in Connecticut and avoids contact with Conor. He begins to stalk Eleanor, following her into Professor Friedman’s classroom, at which point the director finally reveals that Eleanor and Conor are husband and wife.
The movie is cast well enough. Jessica Chastain makes sense as the daughter of William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert. Chastain has a strong screen presence, but McAvoy’s charisma is more suspect, and when a co-worker at the bar he runs makes a pass at him, it seems less like an act of misguided passion than a naked plot point. Chastain and McAvoy have the kind of uncertain chemistry of a couple who are struggling to keep their marriage from falling apart in the aftermath of tragedy. But they also have the uneasy chemistry of a couple whose stories are told in separate films subtitled Him and Her.
There’s a reason the plot feels half formed. Benson originally conceived an Eleanor Rigby saga in which two discreet films would show the respective sides of the relationship, leaving out much that the other partner sees. I haven’t seen the 190 minute combo of these parts, and this two-hour distillation doesn’t whet my appetite for more. Them seems to fill in pieces that may have been better left unfilled, leaving no mystery in the film except in what the filmmaker decides to withhold from us.
Benson withholds information, but he also belabors the obvious. Professor Friedman actually says to Eleanor, “’All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?‘ That’s the Beatles song you’re named after,” as if the audience needed the refresher as much as Eleanor. That song created an entire emotional world in just over two minutes. In just over two hours, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them fails to create a compelling and credible world.