If there are two sides to every story, as the old adage goes, the same must be true of that most complicated of stories, a marriage. With his debut feature, The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby, writer-director Ned Benson offers a bifurcated take on the troubled matrimony of Conor (James McAvoy), a struggling New York restaurateur, and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain), the wife who’s walked out on him. Not that audiences who saw the film in theaters last month would guess as much: The version that’s already out there, the one bearing the subtitle Them, is actually two films spliced fairly seamlessly together. Her and Him, as they were originally identified, premiered as separate movies at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Now those individual cuts are coming to U.S. theaters, packaged together as a roughly three-hour double feature. Run, don’t walk, to see these beautiful people mope together and apart!
All kidding aside, this is definitely how Eleanor Rigby was meant to be seen—and for those with an additional hour of free time and the patience to watch certain scenes twice in one sitting, maybe how it should be seen. Benson’s gimmick, which essentially amounts to intersecting stories that take place during the same timeframe, allows for delayed reveals, context clues, and slight variations on how events unfold. (Benson, for example, borrows the famous parting exchange between Han Solo and Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back, allowing his main characters to swap the lines.) And yet even with the excised material restored, and the two separate narratives given room to breathe, Eleanor Rigby remains vaguely sketched. The subtitles hint at the problem: Eleanor and Conor are more pronouns than people, glimpsed from a distance instead of turned inside out.
As the full title suggests, Benson nurses a greater interest in one of his protagonists than the other. And so it’s little surprise that Her turns out to be the better of the two movies, mostly by virtue of prominently featuring Chastain, who conveys an interior life—shifting emotions, competing desires—the script doesn’t supply her. Somehow meatier and more ramshackle than its counterpart, the film follows Eleanor as she makes an apparent suicide attempt, walks out on her husband, decamps to her family home, and begins taking college courses while she figures out next steps. What sparked this radical life change, this extended breather? Her dances around the trauma that drove Eleanor and Conor apart, preferring instead to adopt the slightly aimless trajectory of its distraught heroine. Wordless passages break up the heart-to-hearts—a relief, at least for those who sat through the tighter but more airless Them cut.
While Eleanor remains elusive, both literally and figuratively, those around her shift into sharper focus. Chastain has excellent chemistry with Jess Weixler, who plays her single-mom sister, along with her The Help co-star Viola Davis, doing wonders with an underdeveloped surrogate mother role and some pretty on-the-nose dialogue. Meanwhile, William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert, cast as the character’s actual parents, offer performances so richly shaded that one almost wishes Benson had made the cinematic equivalent of a double LP about their lives instead. No wonder Them seems so unbalanced: Most of the best scenes unfold from the perspective of Eleanor and her family.
Flawed though it is, Her backs up Benson’s insistence that his two movies can be experienced independent of each other. The same cannot be said for Him, which derives almost all of its very modest power from its relationship with its better half. McAvoy, turning up the broody charm, isn’t to blame. The trouble is that Conor’s drama, set against the backdrop of a lonely Manhattan, looks even more generic than Eleanor’s. And the supporting characters, including best-bud chef Stuart (Bill Hader), aren’t as developed as the ones in the corresponding film—though Conor’s relationship with his father (Ciarán Hinds) benefits from the fuller treatment Them left on the editing-room floor. Perhaps Him would function better if the Weinsteins put it at the top of the double bill instead of at the bottom; not only would that fix the issue of diminishing returns, it would restore some mystery to Eleanor, whose titular companion piece makes Him feel basically redundant.
“I have no idea who I am now,” Conor tells Eleanor during one of their bittersweet reunions, his absentee spouse echoing the sentiment. Given that Eleanor Rigby is explicitly about people trying to find themselves, maybe it’s permissible that Benson hasn’t found them either. One still can’t help but wish, though, that the movies didn’t rely on pat characterizations, broadly typifying their female lead as a runner and their male one as a fighter. (Applying a gender reading to these genderized cuts does neither of them any favors.) In complete or combination form, Eleanor Rigby abstracts the love story it’s ostensibly eulogizing; it’s surprising to learn that Conor and Eleanor have been together for seven years, as the flashbacks—including a rather lovely scene of the two dancing in car headlights to OMD’s “So In Love,” like models in a Levi’s commercial—suggest a never-ending honeymoon. There’s just no point in offering two sides of a story if neither provides any particularly useful information. Maybe Benson is working on yet another cut that will reveal who Eleanor and Conor really are. He can call it Us.