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This time around, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ fights the loneliness

Chastain, McAvoy performances shine in film’s look at disrupted relationships, adding nuance to despair

The comfortable silence draping the couple is interrupted by the end of the meal. The woman takes off her heels. “I’ll get a head start, then you follow when you think they aren’t looking,” she says. Seconds later, he sprints out of the restaurant, urging her on with the waiter in hot pursuit. Panting, they collapse together in a park, dine-and-dash successful.

The two intertwined bodies are silhouettes in the grass, illuminated by swirling fireflies. “There’s only one heart in this body. Have mercy on me,” he says.

So far, so rom-com.

“Shut up,” she responds.

This opening scene exemplifies “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” at its best. Never quite attempting to be heartbreaking, it stealthily shifts from cutesy to melancholy to a kind of wistfulness tinged with irrational optimism in its intimate look at a grieving couple and the impassable chasm that develops in their separate approaches to loss.

In other words, it’s not about The Beatles.

The woman, played by a technically perfect Jessica Chastain, is named Eleanor Rigby. Director Ned Benson deals with this particular mystery — is she the Eleanor Rigby? — quickly. “My parents stood next to each other waiting for a band to never show,” El intones to an inquisitive professor, describing the meet-cute that resulted in her name.

But “Disappearance” is nothing if not a look at lonely people, all of them or just a pair.

A few minutes in, a suicidal Eleanor combs the railings of a bridge, finding a suitable spot to scale in order to jump into the waters below. Her husband, Conor — played by James McAvoy — visits her in the hospital. Then she is gone.

Much of the rest of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game. Conor is consistently one step behind in discovering the location of his wife, as is the couple in contemplating  why the relationship has entered such tumultuous waters.

Eleanor’s disappearance is both a semblance and a genuine act of desperation. Leaving her and Conor’s apartment in New York, she simply moves across the city to the house of her musician mother and psychologist father, well within Conor’s tracking abilities. But she attempts to begin an entirely new life, going back to college for courses on the human condition in what may be both a ploy to gain the psychiatric help she refuses from her father and a way to remake her scarred past. (We learn she discontinued her dissertation on French artisans due to a pregnancy.)

The film was created under unique circumstances — not as a complete work but as two separate ones, entitled “Him” and “Her,” each examining the perspective of its respective pronoun-bearer. Benson edited the films, which collectively run over three hours long, together into a meshed look at the relationship as a whole.

For the sake of moviegoers, it’s probably good that he did. The ensemble cast is excellent, with Viola Davis as Eleanor’s professor-turned-shrink, William Hurt as Eleanor’s father and Ciarán Hinds as Conor’s father, a renowned New York restauranteur from whom Conor draws inspiration for his own sidewalk bar-restaurant.

But the script wastes much of this talent on the sort of overdone philosophizing that belies the incredible work that Chastain and McAvoy put in to make their characters three-dimensional. Meaningless lines like “we live in a world full of probablys” and “a shooting star only lasts a second, but isn’t it better to have seen it?” simply take up screentime. No one except El and Conor has an answer to their relationship, leaving the audience wondering why Benson insists on repeating the question to anyone gracing the screen.

The bright spot in the supporting actor category is Bill Hader as Conor’s best friend and business partner Stuart. Stuart is the mediocre chef at Conor’s failing restaurant and is the only thing stopping Conor’s character from being enveloped in tidal waves of despair — the sort of friend who questions him on why he refuses to ask for his father’s help and who throws kale at him when he deserves it.

Conor’s quarter-life crisis adds a perfect foil to El’s more profound moroseness. In Hader and McAvoy’s best moments, the film hops genres to become a male version of “Girls” — something the director must recognize, as he blatantly steals a car accident scene from season one of the show.

But McAvoy and Chastain undoubtedly carry the film, making up for its less disciplined screenwriting moments. As long-time lovers tend to do, they gravitate back toward each other, like magnets coming close but never quite touching. It’s these scenes that draw the audience in. Each failed attempt at recreating the opening scene’s bliss is more excruciating than the last, drawing well-deserved comparisons to 2010’s heart-rending relationship drama “Blue Valentine.”

Chastain wears every look with the burden of a woman suffering from profound depression — someone tired of pretending to be okay but somehow unable to stop doing so. Eleanor’s every response is as forced as Chastain’s fake smiles are effortless. At times, McAvoy proves an unworthy foil, occasionally teetering into angry-schoolboy territory as he tries to win Eleanor back but always righting himself back into the role of a desperate man with nothing left to lose. At heart, Conor is a child anyway: While El tries to gain back her life by going to college, Conor follows her and regresses to the adolescent method of communication known as note-passing.

The film’s most aesthetically striking shots are of Conor stalking Eleanor around New York. The people on the busy streets are oblivious and blurred, while a vibrant Eleanor stands out in stark contrast. This reoccurring visual underlies Benson’s central challenge — whether Conor and Eleanor’s relationship plunges them farther into a world of lonely people or whether it’s the only thing that can save them from it.


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