Serenely melancholy but unfailingly melodramatic, "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" is a tone poem to love and loss that goes on too long and is more intent on creating a sad mood than with breaking your heart.
Writer-director Ned Benson shows us a happy couple in an opening moment, an attempted suicide in the next. And for the rest of the movie, we see these two — played by Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy — unhappily separated, broken and on edge. And we see a small circle of lovers, family and friends who struggle to make eye contact, to avoid "the big conversation" with a couple that has split up for reasons that only become clear well into the story.
Eleanor grew up named for the anti-heroine of the Beatles song "Eleanor Rigby." She shrugs that off as a whim of her parents (Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt). But we can’t help but notice "all the lonely people" around her.
She survives a suicide attempt, but as far as husband Conor is concerned, she has disappeared. Her cellphone is shut off, her family won’t let him contact her. We figure they have their reasons.
Conor is a failing young restaurateur running "a bar with uninspired food" with his chef-pal, Stuart (Bill Hader). Conor has a temper, brawling with customers, tussling with Stuart in the kitchen. His depressed restaurateur-father (Ciaran Hinds) is full of cryptic, wise-sounding advice: "You shouldn’t be interested in regretting things."
Eleanor’s psychology-professor dad is even more lost: "None of us knows how to help you."
|‘THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY’
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We see her French mother, wine glass always in hand, and we watch Conor’s stumbling efforts to move on or at least keep moving. Eleanor goes back to college, where Viola Davis plays her world-weary "philosophy of identity" professor, who can’t offer decent advice because she doesn’t know Eleanor’s tortured history.
And in flashbacks, we start to piece together how they all got here, a low-heat love affair that doesn’t predict, at all, where this story might go.
"Disappearance" is an interesting stunt — three films that tell this circumscribed story from two points of view. Benson created "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him" and a "Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her," for festivals and such. The U.S. release combines those two, an act of common sense and mercy — because this story manages to be sad without ever quite achieving "moving."
The performers are all aces, and McAvoy and Chastain are able anchors.
But Benson drifts along on mood, giving very good actors lovely things to say, but rarely surprising us with novel treatments of this sort of breakup, rarely raising the stakes.
Barmaid throws herself at Conor? Dance club pickup tries to bed Eleanor? Even the secret source of their grief is something of a cliche.
The thing that "Disappearance" does perfectly is, unfortunately, its most anti-cinematic trait. Grief and a romantic breakup have never been more deflatingly, depressingly captured. But that’s something more to be recognized and endured than relished in a movie.
By Roger Moore, McClatchy Newspapers