Conor Ludlow and Eleanor Rigby — not the English spinster of the Paul McCartney lyric but a married woman in contemporary New York — are a husband and wife who respond very differently to a devastating loss.
They’re played by James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, which traces the dissolution of a marriage as a protracted dance between pursuer and pursued. For Eleanor, a lapsed academic who attempts suicide and returns to her parents’ comfortable Connecticut home, life is halted; for half-hearted restaurateur Conor, who stalks her hopefully through the streets of Lower Manhattan, life must go on.
Them is spun from callow romantic notions, the sort that make for heady moments. What’s conspicuously missing is any grasp of the lovers themselves. They suffer and yearn, dance in the moonlight and act out prettily, without benefit of recognizable inner lives.
The Beatles song that Chastain’s character is named for is the essence of concision, capturing whole lives in a few haunting images. In contrast, the movie that appropriates its title is indulgent, amorphous and belabored. Eleanor, like almost everyone in the film, is an indistinct figure from an unfinished story in search of a theme.
Part of a triptych of romantic dramas by Benson, all concerning the same situations and characters, Them is the last feature in the series to be completed, but the first to be released. Parts 1 and 2 of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby — with Her and Him appended to their titles — look at the relationship from each spouse’s perspective. When they hit theaters on Oct. 10, they might fill in some of the gaping blanks in Them.
The action ostensibly pivots on the off-screen death of a child. It’s a cheat, and Benson teases it out insultingly, without providing a single detail that would root the loss in human experience.
The central duo’s upper-middle-class “struggles” ring hollow. Conor frets over the books at his East Village eatery, while the swank joint owned by his world-weary father (an alternately moping and sharp Ciarán Hinds) waits in the wings. Eleanor attempts to moor herself by attending Cooper Union lectures on identity theory, making the roster thanks to the connections of her father (William Hurt, mouthing platitudes very slowly).
Both the older women in Eleanor’s life are ambivalent-bordering-on-hostile toward motherhood. It’s a rich idea that two fine actresses inject with welcome edge, though finally their characters are as two-dimensional as their surroundings. Viola Davis lends bristly energy as Eleanor’s professor and unlikely friend. As her wine-aholic mother, Isabelle Huppert gets to deliver the one memorable line: “I don’t want you to take our relationship too personally,” she tells her daughter. Otherwise, the film is humorless.
In small roles, Nina Arianda and Jess Weixler suggest lives worth exploring, but only Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader, as Conor’s chef and best friend, manages to create an intriguing portrait of someone who’s not just an authorial mouthpiece.
As for Conor and Eleanor, other than their physical delight in each other, they’re little more than projected images. Her defining characteristic is her beauty, his the romantic gesture. In the broad light of day, away from the moonlight, that’s not enough to create a heart-and-soul dance.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, William Hurt, Isabelle Ruppert, Viola Davis.
Writer-director: Ned Benson.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 122 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach; in Broward: Gateway.