Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” is a melancholy ode to love found and lost. It tells the tale of a married couple, Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain), and how they came undone.
It’s not a simple story nor is this — a movie with its own complicated back story — a simple movie. More on that later.
You initially see the couple happy-crazy in love. In the very next scene Eleanor jumps off a bridge in a suicide attempt. Your mind reels at what could possibly have happen to bring this about. As Eleanor recovers, she cuts off contact with Conor.
The film smartly withholds information for a while about a tragedy in their lives that has caused so much to unravel. So Eleanor, as the title indicates, disappears and her husband is forced into the role of her gentlemanly stalker.
He is still in love with her. But is she with him?
Meanwhile their two lives go on in parallel stories: Conor struggles to keep his small Manhattan restaurant/bar afloat along with his pal and chef, Stuart (Bill Hader). Eleanor moves back into the suburban home of her parents.
Her French mother’s (Isabelle Huppert) frustration with her life is symbolized by an ever present wine glass in her hand. Her father (William Hurt), a college professor and therapist, has his own troubles communicating. Dropping by frequently is a divorced sister (Jess Weixler) and her little boy.
Conor also moves in for a spell with his thrice-married father (Ciaran Hinds), owner of a fashionable New York restaurant. Conor starts an affair with his waitress — more accurately, she seduces him — but his heart isn’t in it.
Lost in her own life, Eleanor takes a motivational course from a no-nonsense professor (Viola Davis), a character introduced mostly to provide sounding board for Eleanor, an unusual role for an Oscar nominee. This is a situation she seemingly acknowledges when her character challenges her own pedantic pronouncements, an unusually character trait to be sure.
The acting is fine with any number of long, meaty scenes that allow actors to provide insight into their troubled characters. (Not a single character leads an untroubled life as is evident in just about every conversation.)
It’s interesting this film is as good as it is given its highly unusual genesis. The film originally debuted a year ago at the Toronto Film Festival in a 191-minute version that was novelly divided into two parts — “Him” and “Her.”
Benson was evidently after a “Rashomon”-like inquiry into how two people experience the same events much differently and how subjectivity clouds their perceptions of what happens.
This is, of course, a strain on any audience and unlikely to be welcomed by exhibitors. So the Weinstein Co. asked for a new version that combined the two previous film. The new cut, “Them,” debuted in Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes and is now coming to theaters in this form.
But wait, a 201-minute extended version, “Her/Him,” opens in October for the curious to compare and contrast these three competing versions of the same story.
You’ll recall that earlier this year Lars von Trier sent out his film “Nymphomaniac” in two successive films, labeled Volume 1 and 2 with a conjoined 5 1/2 version arriving later. If this is a new trend, I’m against it.
We already have critics who’ve had the luxury and access to view all three “Eleanor Rigby” versions advise readers that, as THR’s Deborah Young wrote in Cannes, although “all the main characters and plot points survive the transition intact, they don’t carry the same weight.”
“Him” and “Her,” she insists, feels “like reading a long novel and getting to know the characters inside out. ‘Them’ steps on the accelerator in a sort of Cliff Notes version.”
I, for one, do not want Cliff Notes versions of my movies. We do get every now and then “Director’s Cut” versions of popular movies on DVD. David Lean notoriously re-edited “Lawrence of Arabia” when the movie was restored years later. For that matter, Tennessee Williams re-wrote and re-staged many of his plays throughout his life.
But these all represent afterthoughts or unexpected opportunities. “Eleanor Rigby” has a more calculated feel.
Any director, even a neophyte such as Benson, should realize he’s not going to get theater owners or audiences to sit through 200-odd minutes or for viewers to return to see other versions of the same story.
So I suspect a marketing ploy by the Weinsteins. Who knows, it may work. Maybe audiences will return again and again to the unhappy tale of Eleanor Rigby. I can certainly see a college class studying the different versions and how they were edited and then re-edited.
“His” and “Her” — which I have not seen — certainly represent an fascinating experiment. And I can well believe this is the better viewing experience.
But for now we’ll have to make do with the Cliff Notes version.
Opens: September 12, 2014 (The Weinstein Co.)
Production companies: The Weinstein Company, Myriad Pictures, Unison Films, Dreambridge Films, Standard Deviations, Kim and Jim Productions, Division Films
Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Nina Arianda, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciaran Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Jess Weixler
Director/screenwriter: Ned Benson
Producers: Cassandra Kulukundis, Ned Benson, Jessica Chastain, Todd Labarowski, Emanuel Michael
Executive producers: Kirk D’Amico, Peter Pastorelli, Brad Coolidge, Melissa Coolidge, Jim Casey, Kim Waltrip
Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production designer: Kelly McGehee
Music: Son Lux
Editor: Kristina Boden
R rating, 123 minutes