A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them," a film about trauma's impact on a couple and their families, poses a conundrum for critics, and perhaps for regular viewers as well. Writer-director Ned Benson originally conceived it two movies retelling the same story from the perspectives of the wife (Jessica Chastain) and the husband (James McAvoy). Chastain told Vulture that in the version focused on the title character, she's just playing the character, and in the version focusing on the husband, she's playing the husband's subjective perception of that same character. After its debut at the 2013 Toronto film festival, this diptych was purchased by the Weinstein company, whose boss Harvey Weinstein decided that a pair of films that ran four-plus hours and repeated key moments were a tough commercial sell; Benson was therefore ordered to re-edit both films into a combined version, subtitled "Them," which opens today in limited release. The original, dual versions, subtitled "Him" and "Her," will be released to selected art house theaters Oct. 10. So eventually you'll be able to experience the filmmaker's vision in—how many versions is it? Three? Two-and-a-half? More than one, at any rate.
The question for the critic is, how can one judge the truncated version, which is being released weeks before the general population has a chance to the split-up original version?
I grappled with this before attending a screening of "Them," then ultimately decided to wait and experience it the way most people will, starting with the combined version and then sampling the original pair. My reasoning is that people who sample "Them" and don't like it won't be inclined to watch a version of the same story again at twice the length, and people who'd rather experience the filmmaker's original vision will just wait until Oct. 10 anyway. In any event, I'll review "Him" and "Her" on their release dates, when non-critics will have a chance to see it. This surely isn't the way the filmmaker imagined his film(s) would be seen, but that's how they're being released; so I'm going to watch "Them" without skipping ahead to "Her" and "Him," for fear of coloring my perception of the combined version.
The verdict: in an era in which the mainstream entertainment press seems to care about nothing but films featuring superheroes, monsters, robots and Oscar-baiting "prestige" stories, "Them" is a welcome outlier. It's intelligent and adult, and the principal cast—which also features Bill Hader, Jess Weixler, Viola Davis, Isabelle Huppert, Ciaran Hinds and William Hurt—is excellent. The film itself, however, is a mixed bag—a handsomely photographed but often too leisurely trip into the psychic terrain of grief and denial, about a loving couple who are split up by tragedy and driven to alienated and even self-destructive behavior, but who never entirely shake the upper-middle-class conditioning that keeps them from tipping irrevocably over into chaos.