“Go big or go home,” reads that annoying promo at Regal Cinemas. Ned Benson must have been paying attention, because for his first feature project, the writer-director has gone huge, releasing three versions of the same story. Though he should be applauded for his effort, he’s bitten off more than he can chew or, more specifically, edit – at least judging by the version of the film in theaters this week.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival and will get art-house releases next month. They tell separate stories of the same marital breakup. For general release, Benson has created Them, which tries to combine the other movies into a single moving meditation on loss but ultimately feels like an overlong teaser for Him and Her.
Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) – yes, her parents named her for the Beatles song – and Conor (James McAvoy) have recently undergone shared trauma but have dealt with it in vastly different ways. Conor plods along at his unsuccessful restaurant career while Eleanor has a breakdown, retreats to her parents’ house and starts taking classes at a local college.
“I really don’t know who you are,” Eleanor’s teacher tells her. “That’s OK. Neither do I,” she responds. Despite a runtime of more than two hours, we really never know either – except by gleaning bits of information from tantalizing but frustratingly vague glimpses into her thoughts.
The characters’ relationships with their parents are perfectly naturalistic. As Conor’s dad, Ciarán Hinds is solid, but it’s William Hurt, as Eleanor’s father, who shines. That sense of honesty and purpose doesn’t extend to the other supporting characters, though, as Eleanor’s sister (Jess Weixler) and teacher (Viola Davis) seem thrown in to pad the plot. Similarly, Bill Hader, as Conor’s friend and co-worker, is partially wasted, especially considering that, after his performance in The Skeleton Twins, we know what he’s capable of when not trapped in underwritten comedy.
Though the story is heartbreaking and the lead performances eminently watchable, we still don’t feel the full emotional weight because the film fails to transfer it to us. Instead, we get a sporadically insightful mix of tedium and tragedy, hindered by a structure with little style, forward motion or sense of purpose.
The slow pace and overwhelming feeling of gloom and loneliness are somewhat appropriate considering both the Beatles song and the experiences of Eleanor and Conor. “No one was saved” in both the song and movie, it appears. Additionally, viewers who have undergone similar sorrow may bond with the characters and ultimately take away profundity. Despite my enormous, unshaken appreciation for Chastain and McAvoy, this writer, regrettably, has taken away little but frustration and even boredom.
Having not seen Him and Her, I can’t say whether the dual-film format more successfully captures an admittedly intriguing story. All I’m left with from Them are the memories of a great-but-squandered premise and a film so uninspired in its editing and rambling in its presentation that it, like its title character, almost disappears.
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