Saturday, September 20, 2014

Failed Oscar Campaigns: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby:: Them (2014)

Left to right: James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.


The reason that I have decided to start up the Failed Oscar Campaigns column is because of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. What started off as just another film that starred the wonderful Jessica Chastain quickly became a fascinating wormhole into just how bad Oscar campaigning can go. As will be explored, what started off as a feat of universal acclaim quickly divulged into a mess that tragically may have sacrificed the film any legacy. Considering that Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein has a fantastic history of bizarre campaign strategies that pay off, I have decided to give them some recognition in an attempt to explore Oscar history in a different way. So please, enjoy.

The Movie

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014)
Directed by: Ned Benson
Written by: Ned Benson
Starring: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Viola Davis
Genre: Romance, Drama
Running Time: 122 minutes
Summary: One couple's story as they try to reclaim the life and love they once knew and pick up the pieces of a past that may be too far gone.

The History

It has been billed as a romance unlike any other. While many have since compared it to the Nichole Kidman film Rabbit Hole, others have embraced its audacity to be a romantic epic that follows a couple's decay from two different perspectives. This approach was dubbed with the subtitles Him (for James McAvoy's POV) and Her (for Jessica Chastain's POV) and split into two films equally around 190 minutes, or 3 hours and 10 minutes of running time. The film premiered in 2013 at Toronto International Film Festival as a "work in progress." The average screenings ran both films back-to-back with Him and Her, which left many claiming that it featured both some of Chastain and McAvoy's best acting to date and left many speculators to wonder if Chastain's Oscar nomination wasn't too far behind.

The Campaign

Ned Benson's unique experience survives on that novelty. It helps it to become one of the most romantic films of this decade according to Awards Daily. However, when Harvey Weinstein decided to buy the film, things began to get muddy. Suddenly the immersing experience of Him and Her was too much. General audiences wouldn't sit through a three hour movie (counterargument: Transformers:: Age of Extinction is 2 hours and 45 minutes and has made over a billion dollars worldwide) and they wouldn't likely invest in watching them separately. This was the Weinstein's way of thinking. Considering that the film had built buzz out of TIFF and was continuing to garner attention from Cannes, there had to be a strategy that would pay off...

So Weinstein decided to do something that made the already ambitious project even more grand. He helped to create Them: a combination of Him and Her that meshed the two stories into one more marketable movie. While Him and Her also have planned releases, Them was released first on September 12 with hopes of getting Oscar attention. It is supposedly a better showcase for the actors and easier to fit the prestige into a niche corner. For many, Them is going to be the most accessible form of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, as the others will be in a more limited release and not used solely as an Oscar campaign.

More importantly, audiences will likely be confused about the film if they ever decide to research or watch the film without consideration to the Him, Her, or Them subtitle. It will be three different experiences. As Benson puts it, Them is a great starting point because it holds value and serves as an entryway into the themes and narratives. If Them is seen last, things will lose resonance. Considering that I had to research these titles just to know why the film was listed three times, I feel like this campaign sabotaged general audience's abilities to see the film in its best format possible. While Benson condones Them, there is still a sense of inferiority with the film.

The Payoff

Little has yet to be seen, but considering that Oscar season has kicked off, the talk on The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby hasn't exactly become prominent enough to care. Since Them is the big seller, it is proving problematic. Not only is the box office middling, but the reviews are equally damning. With 61% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, there's still some appraisal for the film, though with caveats to spare. While many recognize the performances, others choose to judge the film's quality and narrative structure as a detriment. 

Here are some random blurbs:

"Worth it for the talent on display, disappointing for what the talent has been given, or not given, to work with." - Steven Rea (Philadelphia Inquirer)
"It's an honest exploration of loss of the most devastating kind, an examination of how different people try to heal, if such a thing is possible." - Michael Ordona (San Francisco Chronicle)
"For me Chastain's unerring honesty is the only element keeping The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby above the realm of pure affectation." - Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune)
"It boasts (nearly) all the elements of a perfectly fine, even very good, movie, without ever quite becoming a movie at all." - Dana Stevens (Slate)
"Jessica Chastain is a shining star with acting skills that resonate beyond her beauty. She is at her fierce, unerring best, which is saying something, in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby." - Peter Travers (Rolling Stone)
"The film feels more thrown-together than thought-through." - Keith Phipps (The Dissolve)
That is only a sampling of blurbs from people who have reviewed the film. The general complain about Them is that the film is poorly edited together of two better films. In fact, the general concept of Him and Her was fascinating. Them simply feels like a marketing gimmick. However, Chastain seems to get the best praise from anything about the film, so Weinstein has succeeded in pleading a great case for her potential Best Actress Oscar nomination. In fact, according to statistics website Gold Derby, she is in fifth place with odds of 10:1, which is tied with Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and is a film that has yet to be released. Leading the pack is Amy Adams (Big Eyes) with odds of 27:10. It is too early to determine if the odds will stay or improve for Chastain, though the film's lack of exposure doesn't help it's case.

I only call this a Failed Oscar Campaign because it essentially took something pure and mangled it into something confusing. While The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby didn't exactly stand a chance of being a box office smash hit, there was something pristine about Him and Her that made the results feel more understandable. By getting greedy, it feels like Weinstein cost the film exposure in a positive way. Who wants to see Them when it is condensed from two superior films? That is the logic in play. Even if Benson condones Them, I don't feel like it will be a hit. Also, prepare for a legacy of confusing searches on IMDb that is more confusing than referencing "the first Star Wars movie." 

I do plan to see all three versions, if just out of the same fascination that drove me to see Nebraska's one-time (to my knowledge) airing in color. I want to see alterations and what exactly makes these all different. Also, the film just seems interesting. However, think about it. What if Boyhood had been condensed because audiences wouldn't watch a three hour movie? It wouldn't be the cultural phenomenon it is right now. Weinstein needs to learn that it isn't the length that sells, but the quality, which the original versions supposedly had in spades.

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