Sad are the souls in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” a story about two troubled people struggling over whether to salvage or abandon their tragedy-splintered marriage. First-time writer-director Ned Benson delivers stellar moments in this walk on the blue side. But the movie lacks a solidly developed central relationship.
Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) – her parents met at a Beatles-related event, end of story – and husband Conor (James McAvoy) first appear in a giddy-in-love flashback. Next up, in a scene set several years later, Eleanor is attempting suicide. Benson then follows both characters as each tries to cope in the wake of the tragedy that shattered their lives. Supporting characters ooze disappointment.
Eleanor moves into the Connecticut home of her artistic,wine-sipping French mother (Isabelle Huppert) and barely communicative psychotherapist father (William Hurt). She enrolls in a class taught by Professor Friedman (Viola Davis), a jaded but goodhearted sort.
Conor struggles to keep afloat the Manhattan eatery he operates with chef and long-suffering friend Stuart (Bill Hader). He also spends time with his thrice-divorced father (Ciaran Hinds), a restaurateur who offers him a future he’s not sure he wants. The romantic element intensifies when Conor, wanting Eleanor back, stalks her. Eleanor, though angry, still has feelings for Conor. The two share episodes of rocky reconnection.
Avoiding melodrama, Benson delivers some gemstone moments. In some, adult children see themselves turning into their parents and must decide whether to follow that path. In others, parents realize their children are repeating their own slide into disillusion.
Yet the movie lacks the dramatic thrust and emotional center necessary to qualify as more than a collection of nuggets. Unlike “Blue Valentine,” which substantially acquainted viewers with both parties in a failed relationship, this movie provides no real picture of who Eleanor and Conor were before their marriage crumbled.
The tragedy itself, the nature of which anyone familiar with broken-looking protagonists like these will guess, is dealt with only sketchily.
But the cast is engaging. While McAvoy’s Conor is too selfish and ill-tempered to earn the audience’s regard, his climactic scenes with Chastain’s Eleanor – in which they finally address the terrible thing that befell them – are deeply affecting. Chastain makes Eleanor’s sadness exquisite.
Additional standouts: Davis, whose bonding sessions with Chastain’s Eleanor merit more screen time, and Hurt, whose off-cadence phrasing shines in a father-to-daughter confession that begins with “I lost you in the ocean once.” Jess Weixler, playing Eleanor’s single-mom sister, and Nina Arianda as Conor’s flirtatious bartender, round out the supporting cast.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
two and a half stars
Starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Viola Davis, Ciaran Hinds
Written and directed by Ned Benson
Running time 2 hours, 2 minutes