The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them begins with a hackneyed prelude to a lost paradise, of two love birds, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Connor (James McAvoy), skipping out on a check at an East Village restaurant before running through Tompkins Square Park and falling to the ground in giddy excitement. Theirs is a spectacle of twee douchery that’s cloyingly understood, like the happily electric dance of the fireflies that dapple the air around them, as a mating ritual. It’s also a marker of the happier days between Eleanor and Connor, before the catastrophic incident that tears them apart and which everyone around them only acknowledges in the abstract. It’s no spoiler to say that the death of a child is what sends this husband and wife on opposing paths toward emotional oblivion, though it may come as a surprise to fans of Chastain and McAvoy that rarely have these actors been at the mercy of a film so wrongly convinced of its sense of ambiguity.
In the way first-time writer-director Ned Benson jumbles chronology and constructs characters through a process of abstraction, the film suggests the influence of the feel-bad perfume-commercials-cum-dramas of Derek Cianfrance. Though he’s less beholden than the Blue Valentine and Place Beyond the Pines director to fatuous visual accentuations of theme, and less dependent on connect-the-dots plotting, Benson is still an artist of excess. Prone to hawking self-consciousness as import, he asks us to believe that Eleanor, who seems as if she’s never lost it at the movies, would hang posters of Masculin, Féminin and A Man and a Woman on her walls. Perhaps the justification is that Isabelle Huppert has been banally typecast as her icy musician mother—or, more likely, and in the vein of Lee Daniels’s risible and inexplicable neorealist aside from Precious, Benson is committing the rookie mistake of metatexually pawning off his favorite things as his characters’ own.
But those are minor transgressions in a film that abounds in excruciatingly obvious, often precious, articulations of grief, where questions are schematically answered with more questions, and where armchair philosophizing volleys back and forth with punishing abandon. In one of few scenes that directly address the death of Eleanor and Connor’s child, Connor’s father (Ciarán Hinds), a fellow restaurateur, likens his departed grandchild to a shooting star that, while it only lasted a second, he’s so glad to have seen. “It’s a little Hallmark,” responds Connor, to which the audience may choke in laughter. This is, after all, a film that has Eleanor tearfully setting free a firefly from a mason jar given to her as a nightlight by her nephew, and where Eleanor’s father, a Yale professor played by William Hurt, likens tragedy to a foreign country, because “we don’t know how to talk to the natives.”
McAvoy and Chastain are remarkable actors who make Them’s most cloying beats hum with a sincerity of feeling that can be striking, as in a scene where their characters state how they’re a million miles away in the same room, in one where Connor went “soft” while Eleanor went “hard” in the wake of their child’s death, and in one where she wishes she “could say something articulate.” This in spite of the fact that everything that falls out of the mouths of these pretentiously etched babes feels as if it’s been pored over with such intellectualized self-awareness as to suggest a would-be scholar’s legwork for a dissertation, like the one Eleanor never finished after getting pregnant while attending NYU. And both actors soar in the film’s climax, an explosion of emotional nakedness so raw and honest that it comes as a relief from all the floridly lightweight artifice that Benson deploys until then to give ultimately wafer-thin shape to Connor and Eleanor’s suffering.
Two alternate versions of the film, Him and Her, which screened last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, have been positively received and are planned for release in October. It’s possible that these alternate takes of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby will more richly color in Eleanor and Connor’s grief, maybe even convey their pain as something at least in part of their own making, as opposed to a behavioral response to every other character’s pussyfooting. But even if one of these films completely did away with Them’s biggest sore spot, an unbearable professor played by Viola Davis who, from her references to Descartes and Steinbeck, speaks consistently and cringingly on point to Eleanor’s loss, it’s impossible to imagine one even remotely approaching the operatic sway and sense of organic fullness of Kenneth Lonergan’s resplendent study of sorrow, Margaret.