Several years ago, a budding filmmaker named Ned Benson asked his mega-successful friend Jessica Chastain to co-star in his first movie. The actress gave Benson a critique many a male screenwriter has probably heard at some point: the female role just isn’t very interesting. Instead of rewriting “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” Benson simply wrote another script, subtitling the original one “Him” and the new one “Her.” Meant to be seen in tandem, the pair are supposed to create a dialogue between two perspectives, one on each side of a failing marriage.
That’s an ambitious premise — too ambitious, it turns out, for the films’ narrative and marketing challenges. The Weinstein Company rolled out an “‘Eleanor Rigby’ for Dummies” subtitled “Them” last month that messily braided together scenes from “Him” and “Her” to plodding and self-serious effect (read my review of “Them” here).
The two films that take up Eleanor (Chastain) and Conor’s (James McAvoy) POVs fare better than “Them”; unsurprisingly, they’re thematically richer and more tonally cohesive than their hybrid. But because the two films are so similar to one another, they fail to deliver on the promise of their unique structure, rendering the “he said, she said” complementary design of the two films a dull, self-indulgent gimmick.
A caveat here: I can only review the “Eleanor Rigby” films based on the order in which I saw them, which is “Them” last month and “Her” and “Him” consecutively a few days ago. In this review, I’ll primarily analyze my experience of watching “Her/Him,” but also offer brief evaluations of each movie individually.
“Her” is less a love story than a double mystery: why Eleanor jumps off a bridge in the first scene and how to find normalcy after her close brush with death. While recuperating at her parents Mary and Julian’s (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) Connecticut home, she bonds with her still-living-at-home sister Katy (Jess Wexler) and takes art-theory classes in Manhattan with the sophisticated but drained Professor Friedman (Viola Davis).
It’s revealed fairly quickly that Eleanor’s infant son died six months ago. Best expressed in a quietly devastating moment when Eleanor’s smile slowly evaporates as she remembers the events that brought her back to her childhood home, her grief invites a fascinating exploration of maternal guilt and regret among herself, her single-mother sister Katy, her never-wanted-kids-at-all mother Mary, and the hasn’t-felt-like-speaking-to-her-son-in-months Professor Friedman.
Since “Her” can’t boast a plot per se, it coasts by on some very strong scenes paced to respect the protagonist’s bereavement. As Eleanor commutes back and forth to grad school, Benson’s camera, close enough at Chastain’s nape to be a second head, captures a great sense of walking around in the Village: weaving and contorting around others on the crowded sidewalks, looking at passersby and being looked at by them.
Eleanor’s post-suicide-attempt haircut and patrician mourning clothes occasionally lends the air of a moody fashion video, but there are plenty of moments that outline a detailed history of the character: as a tactile little girl, a bookish free spirit, and now a woman who can’t conceive of a future. Delivering a detailed, well-rounded performance, Chastain sparks much more chemistry with Davis, Huppert, and Wexler than with the sullen McAvoy.
Part of that lies at Benson’s feet, for the writer-director has a lot more to say about tragedy than he does about love. Recalling a joyful moment from her childhood, Eleanor asks her father, “How many more times do you think I’ll remember that moment?” as if sorrow has so consumed her that even her prior happiness will soon cease to exist.
In contrast, Eleanor and Conor’s courtship is told almost entirely through the soundtrack – pretty but skin-deep. Compare that to the brilliantly physical tussle between Eleanor and Katy, in which they threaten, “I will bite you!” “I will bite you back!” They pull each other’s hair playfully; a hug transforming into a body crush transforming back into a hug.
Late in the film, Eleanor visits Conor on the day before their shared apartment’s lease runs out. Their reunion was built up so clumsily in “Them” that the emotionally climactic confession of the reason behind her suicidal jump made me snicker. The lead up is much more natural here, and the previous meditations on motherhood add substantial weight to Eleanor’s sad admission.
“Her” and “Him” are told in “first-person limited,” meaning that the camera basically sees only what Eleanor or Conor sees. The latter views the world rather differently from his wife, of course, and so “Him” delves into (much less insightfully developed) ideas about mortality and male promiscuity. But the thing that catastrophically sinks “Him” – or “Her,” if that’s the film you see second – is that the two films are enough alike that sitting through the second immediately after the first is a slog.
Instead of the “Rashomon”-like battle of perspectives implied by bifurcating the narrative, Benson squanders the possibilities of his double-portrait format by merely offering small variations within the scenes the two films share. In a car scene where they flirt with reunion, for example, she’s sitting on top of him in “Her,” while he’s lying on top in “Him.” During a furious fight on the street, Eleanor remembers Conor leaning into her personal space, while he remembers her shoving him.
But since these discrepancies never add up to much – and, crucially, don’t significantly change the meaning of a scene when we view them for the second time – it all just becomes a game of “Spot the Difference.” And if “Him” were to be seen a week or two after “Her” (or vice versa), these small deviations are so meaningless they likely won’t be noticed at all.
Conor’s story does enjoy more of a storyline than his wife’s: he’s searching for Eleanor (she’s hiding out at her parents’) while his restaurant teeters on its last legs. He’s also a violent jerk, which explains why he remembers his dine-and-dash experience with Eleanor as romantic, rather than callow. McAvoy accumulates a collection of facial cuts and bruises over the course of the film, making Conor’s subtle bullying of his dorky best friend and colleague Stuart (Bill Hader) simultaneously entertaining and uncomfortable.
Conor also engages in a brief flirtation with his bartender Alexis (Nina Arianda), but that dread-filled episode is less about passion than in sussing out the unwanted parallels with his Irish restaurateur father Spencer (Ciarán Hinds). With McAvoy playing a mopey dope, Hinds steals every scene he’s in as a womanizer in between relationships, a dehorned bull that doesn’t let his sadness get in the way of his swagger.
While Conor’s overwhelming concern at his wife’s disappearance is understandable, “Him” is undone by illogical and seemingly incomplete characterization. Specifically, there’s no acknowledgement that his six-month-old child died just a few months ago until the last five minutes of the film. McAvoy delivers a moving cry-speech then, but he can’t salvage a film anchored by an underwritten role.
“Eleanor Rigby” reminds us that love is a fragile thing, but it forgets patience can be just as brittle.