By Phil Brown, Reporter
The main conceit, or premise, of Ned Benson’s freshman feature The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is immediately arresting.
Benson purports to split a single narrative into two films: one from the point of view of Him, James McAvoy’s complacent big-city restaurateur, and that of Her, Jessica Chastain’s interrupted and un-fulfilled academic, as they navigate an emotional crisis that is destroying their marriage.
It’s an interesting question whether this is a pretension, a gimmick or its opposite, an unnecessary break-down of a subject that should be dealt with in a single film. But it’s not the conceit, this initial concept, that lets the combined story down.
Rather, it’s the parts themselves, the individual movies that fail to live up the interesting premise. I watched Him first. It was okay, I found it generally pretty banal. I thought James McAvoy’s performance was excellent; it’s just that he was doing very mundane things for almost all of the movie.
The films are obsessed with normality and try to make everything in the film extra normal. As a result, nothing feels truly normal, many of the dialogue scenes feel forced and unnatural.
There are some moments when the film works, however, and most of that is due to McAvoy’s performance. Cirian Hinds, although given the worst of the lines in this film, manages to impress in a few key scenes, and Bill Hader is pleasant enough as the sidekick.
All in all, Him is a decent drama flick, but it’s hard to get through the ambiguities and mundane sequences without the promise of it all making sense with the next film.
Similarly, I found Her – portraying Jessica Chastain’s Eleanor Rigby—to be lacking. While the biggest events that drive the overarching narrative occur and are expounded on in Her, it is still frustratingly boring.
The ambiguity that can be so effective seems at times deliberately and unrealistically maintained. While others have praised Chastain’s performance, I’m forced to disagree with the consensus by saying thatI didn’t find her to be very effective in this film.
She never seems to be able to latch on to the characters and setting of the film, most notably in her inability to find chemistry with McAvoyin their scenes together. The dialogue in Her suffers from being very overwrought.
While the interactions of Him may have been banal, they sounded like things actual people would say. But while watching Her, especially watching Chastain’s Rigby interact with her family, I would often wonder to myself, “Do people actually talk like this?”
As stand-alone films, neither Him nor Her really work, which causes the promising idea behind the separate films to fall apart. If they can’t stand alone, then they’re not two films telling a story from different angles—they’re just one long and redundant film. Taken as a whole, the story the films tell is dragged out and frustratingly opaque.
It’s not as if I was unable to find anything to enjoy about the film(s).The scenes that were repeated in subtly different ways across the films were very effective and towards the end of the viewing experience, I did begin to see the scope of the narrative a bit clearer.
It’s an ambitious project, and ambition alone demands respect. Perhaps the films’ shortcomings can be chalked up to the inexperience of the director when it comes to features.
In the end, the problems with Eleanor Rigby could be boiled down to the fact that the two movies were simply not good enough films to stand on their own. Perhaps Benson can return to this concept when he’s had more experience in making good stand-alone films.