Imagine a young couple in Manhattan. It’s the most romantic time of the day, when evening relaxes into night. The pair are thin and beautiful, and because this is a Hollywood picture, pale as the moonlight. But the portrait looks wrong: their hands don’t quite meet, the street looks spiky and uneven, the sky is too many shades of blue. There are tiny gaps in the image. It looks like a picture forced into a lumpy, ragged whole from two similar-ish jigsaw-puzzle boxes.
That quiet but persistent incoherence dooms “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them,” one of three films from writer-director Ned Benson about Eleanor and Conor (Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy), a married couple shattered by the death of their infant son.
Benson has made two other accounts of their sorrowful romance. The one subtitled “Him” tells their tale from Conor’s perspective, and the one subtitled “Her” — drafted after Chastain complained that her character in the first script wasn’t interesting enough — recounts the romance from Eleanor’s POV. (Both films will be released next month on October 10.)
“Them” was created in the editing room, with Benson splicing together scenes from “Him” and “Her.” If this plodding, gloomy version is any indication of Benson’s aims, it appears he’s prioritized quantity over quality.
Per its mash-up origins, nothing fits quite right in “Them.” The film wants us to fall in love with Eleanor and Conor immediately, but it introduces them as unrepentant jerks doing a dine-and-dash, followed by a distracted make-out in the park. (Say what you will about Bonnie and Clyde, but at least those two were devoted to each other.) Bits of earnest, Zach Braff-ian dialogue shine an artificially bright light onto the somber gloaming. And it’s hard to get over the stupidity of the main character being named “Eleanor Rigby.”
On top of everything else, the coolly elegant Chastain and boyishly sulking McAvoy make for an unconvincing duo. We don’t learn what fuels their attraction beyond simple attraction; the flashbacks to their courtship boast all the psychological depth of a jeans commercial. Nor do the central characters have the specificity of detail to render them recognizably human. I was tempted to remark that Benson doesn’t know how to write women, until I noticed that he doesn’t know how to write men, either. Both Eleanor and Conor announce that they don’t know who they are or who they want to become — but we don’t even know who they used to be.
Eleanor jumps off a bridge in the film’s second scene, and the question of why she was driven to such despair (and to separate from her husband in the most final manner possible) provides a muffled momentum. Brittle and depressed, Eleanor moves back in with her parents and mentally recovers through conversations with her French mother (Isabelle Huppert), an aging housewife who has traded in her artistic ambitions for too many glasses of wine, and the younger woman’s worldly but defeated art-theory professor (Viola Davis).
In the scenes with these screen veterans, Chastain is touching, simultaneously embodying youth and experience. Huppert gets a few cheekily anti-maternal lines, but Davis is the only performer in the film who seems to be playing a real person.
Conor, too, tries to figure out the next stage of his life after his wife’s “disappearance” and the imminent closure of his restaurant. As he did in “Trance” and “Filth,” McAvoy tries to play against his cherubic face as a tough guy who prefers to talk with his fists, landing one on his best friend’s (Bill Hader) eye. With even less definition (and screen time) than Chastain’s Eleanor, McAvoy doesn’t get the opportunity to make much of an impression.
Eventually, of course, Eleanor and Conor reunite to decide the fate of their marriage. Benson cuts the music, zooms in on his actor’s faces, and turns up the self-seriousness to 11. Eleanor finally reveals her motivation for her suicide attempt. Full disclosure: I laughed. In 2014, screenwriters really should present their characters with problems that can’t be solved in ten seconds with a cell phone.
If this is what love looks like, I want no part of it. And if “Them” is any indication of what “Him” and “Her” look like, I want no part of those, either.