FILM | Betwixt and Between–“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”

Eleanor_Rigby284With “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” first-time writer-director Ned Benson set himself a daunting task: depicting despair on screen. The film follows a couple, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), who have separated after the death of their baby son. Writing in The New Yorker, David Denby implies that the subject matter itself is a fool’s errand: “Benson’s courage is impressive, his naiveté dismaying…moods of grief and depression are almost impossible to make exciting.”

It’s true that despair has a different quality than the many “negative” emotions actors generally dish out: anger, anxiety, betrayal, hatred. There’s a stillness to it. By definition, it’s the feeling that nothing will ever change, that change is no longer possible. That lack of movement is antithetical to the typical narrative arc. We expect action, development, growth.  And if Benson were going only for despair, I might agree with Denby. But in fact, the filmmaker tantalizes us with the hope, however slight, that despair might begin to lift, that even if the characters cannot recapture their happy past, they might find a future together. The problem is not the mood of despair, but how it is conveyed.

Early in the movie, Eleanor nonchalantly walks her bike along the Manhattan Bridge and just as nonchalantly throws herself into the water beneath. The life she imagined no longer exists and she has no interest in the one that’s on offer. When she’s fished out of the river, she does not return home to Conor, but to live with her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt), who are already housing Eleanor’s sister (Nina Arianda) and nephew (Wyatt Ralff). It turns out this is not Eleanor’s first disappearance; she is furious with Conor for trying to recreate some semblance of normal life and routinely abandons him, leaving him to stalk her through the streets and subway stations of Manhattan.

Jessica Chastain does delicate yet tough as well as any actress now working. With her nearly translucent skin and steely eyes, she gives the impression of a fairy toting a machine gun. (Maybe that’s just a flashback from “Zero Dark Thirty.”) Here, she may be almost too tough. For much of the movie, she seems directionless more than tormented. With nothing else to do, Eleanor begins taking a sociology class at her father’s university, ultimately befriending her world-weary professor (Viola Davis). The two women eat burgers and make cracks about staying hard, while their husbands went soft. But does hard convey the full agony of a mother who has lost her baby? We see Eleanor’s anger, even her pain, but it always feels tightly controlled, without the humanizing flash of panic or desperation.

James McAvoy’s Conor is in many ways the more sympathetic partner, openly wounded, still grasping for his wife. Yet even when the film focuses on Conor, it is hard to feel what has been lost. Part of the difficulty may come from the movie’s structure. Originally produced as two separate films, one from his perspective, another from hers, the footage has now been combined into a single film, with the subtitle “Them.” The concept is clever: the loss has cleaved such a cavern between husband and wife that their points of view are too disparate to be contained in one movie. Yet, it leaves a hole for the viewer as well.

There are flashbacks to an early date, complete with rolling around in the car, post-coital Twizzlers and Slurpees, and dancing by the side of the road. There’s certainly fun and chemistry here, but what else? Beyond the headiness of first love or lust, we don’t see who these people were, or who they were to each other. Though the movie is framed by the loss of a child, to the viewer, the baby is only a concept. (We do not see even a photo until the end.) The real focus is the loss of love, the loss of self. Several times, Eleanor asks, do I seem different? We can’t answer that question because we never really saw her beforehand.

During the flashbacks, as the couple romps on a deserted road, Conor asks, where are we? And Eleanor replies, somewhere good. It becomes the film’s refrain. Near the end of the movie (no spoiler alert needed –it’s in the previews), Eleanor says, we’ll never get back to where we were. When Conor asks where that was and she replies, wistfully, somewhere good, we have to take her word for it. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby could have made us feel the loss so much more acutely had we been there with them.


Emily Turner is an editor at Island Press, where she acquires books on food, health, and sustainability. She has also worked at NYU Press and Academy Chicago Publishers. She earned a BA in English literature from the University of Virginia and is pursuing a MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.


FILM | Millennials Chilled

Sarah, Aubrey Plaza; Alex, Jason Ritter. Photographer: Andre Lascaris

“About Alex” is not a perfect film, but it is a near perfect relief from the summer blockbusters. There are no explosions, no car chases, no teenage vampires or comic book characters. And there’s just a little blood: stains from the titular character’s half-hearted suicide attempt run down the tub onto the bathroom floor. But mostly, as Alex’s college friends gather in his old farmhouse to offer support when he returns from the hospital, there is talking.

With its brooding nostalgia, it’s easy to see why “About Alex” is often referred to as “The Big Chill” for Millennials. Ben Kenigsberg of The New York Times calls the echo “distorted,” while Robert Abele of The Los Angeles Times quips, “‘The Big Chill’ it isn’t.”  Even the characters acknowledge the tribute. Sarah (Audrey Plaza), an aspiring chef who is convinced that what Alex needs is mothering, remarks that the gathering is like an old eighties film and suggests naming a stray dog Jeff Goldblum, who starred in the original movie. While the set-ups are nearly identical—a half dozen old friends reunited by the suicide / attempted suicide of a character named Alex—Writer / Director Jesse Zwick puts a contemporary stamp on his characters’ tangled lives.

Most of the social commentary comes from the caustic mouth of Josh (Max Greenfield of “The New Girl”), a perpetually outraged Ph.D. candidate who would rather rail at the world than live in it. He’s angry that his generation came into the job market just as the bubble burst. He’s angry that every moment must be captured on an iPhone and instantly uploaded to Facebook and Instagram. Most of all, he’s angry that his friends are pussyfooting around the reason for their gathering, hiding in politeness rather than thrashing out why Alex was Tweeting about death and why the rest of them failed to notice. Greenfield walks a smart line between idealism and cynicism, making Josh simultaneously callous and sincere.

While Josh’s counterpart in the “The Big Chill” was a drug dealer (albeit a high-end variety), most of the eighties gang was professionally successful, if unfulfilled: doctors, lawyers, T.V. stars, businessmen. They had sold out and were reaping the rewards of furs, fast cars, and summer houses. The friends in “About Alex” are instead struggling with student loans and wobbly job prospects, with the exception of Isaac (Max Minghella), the quiet, sensible type with obscenely expensive shoes, big-money investments, and a Republican voting history. While the times and finances have changed, the theme remains eternal: lives that aren’t turning out quite the way they were planned.

“About Alex” has one important element that its predecessor did not: namely, Alex (Jason Ritter). It’s a smart twist that lends emotional punch to the film’s underlying structure. Alex isn’t simply a device to bring long-lost friends together; he’s a person and, like the characters, we want to know why he did what he did. Ritter plays the role with the gentle charm he is known for on “Parenthood,” but undergirding the sweetness is a near frantic vulnerability. When Ritter’s doe eyes start darting and his voice trembling, the movie takes a jump from casual Mumblecore entertainment to something more striking and vital.

“About Alex” does not maintain its resonance throughout. Lines and character arcs dance perilously close to cliché. And making the gang a decade younger (twenties rather than thirties) undercuts the weight of their regrets. But as Alex chases his best friend’s car, close to distraction and despair with the thought of losing the person who matters most to him, we get a glimpse of what drove him into that bathtub. That moment is worth the price of admission, as it gives its audience something both classic and atypical, something sharp and poignant, that “The Big Chill” could not.


Emily Turner is an editor at Island Press, where she acquires books on food, health, and sustainability. She has also worked at NYU Press and Academy Chicago Publishers. She earned a BA in English literature from the University of Virginia and is pursuing a MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.







FILM | Boyhood in Fast Forward

Boyhood284My father once remarked that there’s nothing sadder than the difference between a six year old and a sixteen year old. After seeing the remarkable film “Boyhood,” I have to agree. Written and directed by Richard Linklater, the movie was filmed over twelve years with the same actors, tracing a boy’s life from elementary school through his first day of college. Though fictional, “Boyhood” feels like a documentary—a study of the passage of time.

My dad was commenting on little children’s bright eagerness, which tends to get lost by the teenage years. But in the case of the titular character, Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), the boy’s development is one primarily of gains. As a little kid, Mason is at the mercy of the generally well-meaning, but often fumbling adults in his life. His mother, Olivia (played with utter conviction by Patricia Arquette), is loving and determined. But as she acknowledges late in the movie, she seems hell-bent on making as many bad life choices as humanly possible. A single mom, pursuing a degree in psychology and then a career teaching it, Olivia links up with “a parade of drunken assholes” whose approaches to fathering amount to bullying.

Meanwhile, Mason Sr. is the quintessential caring but irresponsible dad, swooping in for weekends at the ballpark or bowling alley, and swooping out when things get tough. And who better to play an aging musician with a cool car and a short horizon than Ethan Hawke? Hawke has made an art form out of depicting dreamers who chafe at growing up. It’s nearly magical to see him dragged, kicking all the way, from his thirties to forties in the span of two and a half hours.

While Mason Sr.’s aging process is a tradeoff between accepting responsibility and giving up freedom, Mason Jr.’s is a virtual declaration of independence. From the opening scenes, in which Olivia chides him for spending all day at school staring out the window, Mason struggles to march to his own drummer. That’s hard to do in suburban Texas, where even the photography teacher tells Mason his talent won’t get him anywhere. But with each passing year, Mason develops a stronger sense of self, an awareness of who he wants to be, what he will compromise, and what he won’t.

“Boyhood “is ultimately a hopeful depiction of growing up—an unprecedented movie that captures what it means to come into one’s own. Why then do I call the process it portrays sad? Because every moment that brings a child closer to himself exists for that instant and is then lost forever. It’s painful enough to experience that loss in real time. There’s something uniquely terrifying about watching it in fast forward, more than a decade condensed into a few hours. It’s become a cliché to call coming of age films bittersweet. But I can think of no better word for the expansive and sobering experience of “Boyhood.”


Emily Turner is an editor at Island Press, where she acquires books on food, health, and sustainability. She has also worked at NYU Press and Academy Chicago Publishers. She earned a BA in English literature from the University of Virginia and is pursuing a MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.