Overview: A young wife leaves her husband after a family tragedy. 2014; The Weinstein Company; Rated R; 122 Minutes.
Eleanor: Jessica Chastain has reached a point in her career when the superlative praise no longer needs to be qualified with words like “possibly,” “potentially,” or “perhaps.” She is, in the current, one of the most incredible onscreen talents in film. No working actor or actress holds a frame together as powerfully as Chastain. With a stunning natural aesthetic presence and an unmatched expressive ability, Chastain regularly elevates scenes and individual shots just by thinking, being, feeling. She delivers that ability in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, but only when an overwritten script allows her the opportunity.
Con0r: Similarly, James McAvoy has the ability to carry burden and heartache on his back through nearly any narrative obstacle course. His ability to pierce audience’s hearts with his own conveyed sadness was prominently displayed earlier this year in Filth, a film where emotional resonance might seem an unlikely goal to achieve against its unhinged plot. McAvoy has moments of greatness in Eleanor Rigby but falls well short of his haunting performance from Filth. That is not the actor’s fault.
Script: Writer/Director Ned Benson built this film and two other alternative versions (Him/Her will be released in October) from a script weighing in at a ridiculous 223 pages (Washington Post). And, I think, the weight of that script is the film’s anchor. We’ve seen this material countless times, most recently in Blue Valentine and The Broken Circle Breakdown, both better films than this one because each trusted its actors much more. Both Eleanor and her husband Conor provide replies that are too scripted, studied, and inorganic. Their constant musings often feel like hollow affectations, trite and juvenile poetry. When both characters comment openly about their personal identity crises, Benson’s offense is threefold: he lacks trust in his actors to convey their crisis without blunt exposition, he lacks trust in the audience to perceive the crisis without help, and he undermines any mature statement about common marital struggle by using his script to investigate vanity and self-interest, both his and his characters. Benson’s writing over-confidence can’t help but invade his film, with certain dialogue exchanges even serving as a meta-theatrical critique of the script being used. Conor warns his father that their conversation is in danger of being “Hallmark.” When Eleanor’s professor openly displays concern, Eleanor lets her know that she’s being maternal, which would have been a nice character development for audiences to intuit by their own accord, without a cheat sheet.
All the Other Lonely People: The most successfully profound and emotional sequences in this film are those provided by a supporting cast whose limited screen time works to free them from the script heaviness that smothers the leads. Viola Davis, Isabelle Huppert, Jess Weixler, and SNL favorite Bill Hader all turn in strong performances as members of the couples’ support circle. However, it is William Hurt who provides the most affective moment in his monologue about having once lost his daughter Eleanor in the Atlantic tide, one of the few metaphors allowed to stand on its own legs.
Overall: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is a movie built from a script that doesn’t deserve the acting talent assigned to it.