REVIEW BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
The 1966 Lennon-McCartney tune, “Eleanor Rigby” was released as 45 single and included on the Beatles’ “Revolver” album. The tune was a lamentation about loneliness, an atypically serious topic for the genre of pop music.
“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” has nothing to do with the Beatles. The film’s female protagonist had parents, who thought that it would be ever so clever to name their daughter after the titular spinster in the Fab Four’s somber song. Improbably, this cinematic Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) claims to possess only a vague awareness of the song bearing her iconic namesake. Like many aspects of this film, its title and premise end up being farfetched and gimmicky.
In the first post-title scene, we witness Eleanor is jumping off of a New York City bridge, intent upon killing herself. The film doesn’t immediately clarify what prompted her to attempt suicide. It is a salient element of the plot, so you might assume that the film will eventually provide a satisfying explanation. Alas, such expectations are unrealized.
Eleanor’s parents, Julian (William Hurt), a professor of psychology, and Mary (Isabelle Hupert), an artist-turned-housewife, meet Eleanor in the hospital. They take her to recover in their upscale suburban home. She moves into her old childhood bedroom.
Eleanor is an arrestingly beautiful woman. However, she is consumed with self-loathing. Was she always this way or did specific events trigger this negative self-image? Again, don’t expect to ever find out. We do observe that Eleanor is so repulsed by her appearance and turns around the mirrors in her bedroom to face the wall.
Eleanor’s divorced sister, Katy (Jess Weixler) has also moved back into the family home. There, the single mom is raising her young son, Philip (Wyatt Raiff). No empty nest syndrome for Julian and Mary.
Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy), the film’s male co-protagonist, operates a trendy restaurant. He is caviling about the fact that Eleanor has moved out of the apartment that they share together. What is their relationship- are they roommates or something more? We are nearly a half hour into the film before we learn that Eleanor and James are married. It takes even longer before the film discloses that they had a child, who died. If you are expecting further details on this crucial plot point, your wait will be in vain. Eleanor’s parents and Conor’s dad, Spencer (Ciarán Hinds), have been expressly forbidden from discussing the subject with their children.
Julian prevails upon an academic colleague, Dr. Friedman (Viola Davis), to allow Eleanor to enroll in her class, even though the registration deadline has passed. Dr. Friedman insists that she is opposed to such nepotism, but nevertheless agrees to allow Eleanor into her class. Despite her limited screen time, Davis provides yet another compelling performance. She presents a fascinating amalgam of world-weariness and empathy.
It would be a gross understatement to suggest that most of the characters in the film are unsympathetic. Putting aside Viola Davis’ character and Eleanor’s young nephew as exceptions, they are a bunch of self-absorbed abominations
Jessica’s mother is particularly contemptible. She tells her daughter, who recently attempted suicide, “I don’t want you to take our relationship too personally.” Really? You’re only her mother-why would your psychologically distressed daughter expect to have a personal relationship with you?
Even minor characters prove annoying. Stuart (Bill Hader) portrays Conor’s best friend and the chef in his restaurant. At one juncture, while they are in the restaurant’s kitchen, Conor berates Stuart. Outraged by the insults, Stuart reacts by boinking Conor over the head with some kale. I am certainly relieved that Stuart isn’t mad at me-he might slap me with a soufflé.
In addition to an obtuse storyline and unappealing characters, the film has a jumbled timeline, courtesy of the random use of flashbacks. It is difficult to discern when various events take place relative to one another. At one juncture, we see Eleanor and Conor when they are first courting. How old are they? According to the internal chronology of the film, they would be in their late twenties. However, Eleanor is still wearing pigtails and laughing like a giddy schoolgirl. Is she supposed to be seventeen or twenty-seven?
That is certainly a potentially fascinating approach. Japanese master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, pioneered the approach in “Rashomon.” The classic 1950 film presented different and mutually conflicting accounts of four witnesses to a rape/murder. Kurosawa presented these subjective viewpoints within the context of the same film. By contrast, Benson upped the ante by making two complementary feature films.
The film’s flaws are obvious. However, it remains unclear who should bear culpability for the film’s conceptual incongruity and temporal discontinuity. Originally, Ned Benson, the neophyte screenwriter/director of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” made two separate films. One version was from the female co-protagonist’s point of view. The other captured how the male co-protagonist perceived the same set of events.
Both of Benson’s films premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival as separate entities. I do not know whether they successfully captured the projected raison d’être for making two freestanding films.
After the Weinstein Company purchased the distribution rights to the two films, they were spliced into a single entity. So, the current release is a bastardized composite.
As a result, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is a confusing, disjointed mish mash. In this version, the filmmaker’s putative premise disappears.
** R (for language) 122 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.