Third Person (2014)
137 min., rated R.
The only thing worse than a lazy film is one that thinks it's smarter, weightier, more thought-provoking and revelatory than it really is. Say what you will about writer-director Paul Haggis (2010's "The Next Three Days") and his 2005 Oscar-winning "Crash," a powerfully searing multi-strand drama of interweaving stories; despite pieces of it pushing too hard to make its thematic points, at least the film challenged and left a haunting cumulative impact. Haggis seems to find pleasure in pushing stories around like index cards on a presentation board and moving characters around like chess pieces even more so in "Third Person," pretentious hooey masquerading itself as a Significant Drama. It might have drawn a sprawling ensemble to an ambitious concept, but the film stretches itself to the breaking point of no return and goes around and around and around for an ungodly 137 minutes. Is it an exploration of loss and writerly creation? Or, is Haggis trying to remake "The Words" (2012's like-minded, writing-based drama that was also too gimmicky and co-starred Olivia Wilde)? It's hard to tell, but for sure, "Third Person" is facile and heavy-handed to the point of aggravation.
Nestled in a hotel room in Paris away from his estranged wife (Kim Basinger), Pulitzer-Prize writing author Michael (Liam Neeson) pays for journalist lover Anna (Olivia Wilde) to come stay on the floor above him as he tries finishing writing a manuscript. Over in Rome, business-suited Scott (Adrien Brody) can't keep his eyes off of sultry mystery woman Monika (Moran Atias) in a bar. When she leaves a bag of $500 Euros to get her alleged daughter off a boat, it gets into the wrong hands. Is Scott scamming her or is it the other way around? In New York, ex-soap actress Julia (Mila Kunis) is facing the hard consequences of being charged for nearly suffocating her young son, who is now in the custody of his painter father Rick (James Franco). She's lucky enough to land a job as a maid at a luxury hotel and has a shot at getting shared custody with a tough lawyer (Maria Bello) on her case, but if Julia doesn't adopt more responsibility, she will lose visitation rights to see her precious little boy. What could it possibly all mean? So what?
There still might be a good motion picture aiming to pull off what "Third Person" sets out to do, but it didn't make it to the screen this time. Supposedly taking a semiautobiographical approach with the material, writer-director Paul Haggis uses only the barest form of cohesion to spin this convoluted, ultimately muddled mess of so many plural threads. He hopscotches between the lushly shot New York and Paris and Rome, cuts from one character to another, throws in some symbolism, but "Third Person" begins to feel overly gridlocked and in need of a traffic cop, not an unreliable narrator at the helm. Would any of these stories be worth telling on their own? Perhaps, but Haggis ends up betraying his web of characters, underestimating the viewer, and leaving one caring about nothing. The first "a-ha" moment makes some sense in terms of why a certain character behaves a certain way, but it's just mishandled and ludicrously conveyed as an ickily bonkers shock, and the second revelation is more problematic than surprising. It's so maddening because the film baits the viewer in connecting the dots and then thinks it's pulling the rug out from underneath us. Once Haggis thinks he has snapped every piece into place, it hardly makes up for how overlong, meretricious and head-scratching it all feels.
With Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis attached, the cast of A-listers probably thought they were making something noble and meaningful, but it isn't for lack of trying. They all commit, and even a few memorable performances emerge from the rubble. Olivia Wilde does wonders lending so many shadings to Anna, a flirty, overly confident, nakedly vulnerable, fearful, emotionally cool woman that one almost suspects she's certifiable. Mila Kunis acts the hell out of her part as crisis-laden Julia, coming off sympathetic for how fallible she is, although the script seems to want to punish her over and over. Moran Atias is eye-catching as the enigmatic Monika, while Adrien Brody holds interest in simmering emotions beneath the surface as the equally enigmatic Scott. Finally, Maria Bello is always stirringly readable with a face that says everything, but aside from her strengths to cry, her character is mostly a pawn in the bigger picture.
"Third Person" is the sort of film that loses from shooting high and then shooting itself in the foot. It's the sort of film that's about as graceful as someone whipping their arms around a hotel room full of flower-filled glass vases and breaking every last one of them. Too bat-shit crazy to take seriously, there's also a laughably melodramatic scene where, in slow-motion with an overwrought score taking over for the audio, a character who's holding onto her child's stuffed monkey is pulled across a room by her legs over a rug and then doesn't let go of the rug. Just a pinch of subtlety might have helped. The only reason it almost remains fascinating as a glorious mess is how it keeps the viewer wondering in between sighs where it's going, if anywhere, and what point Haggis wants to make, if any. In the end, there's really nothing to take away, except to wonder how an interesting conceit and talented people on both sides of the camera could so terribly miss the mark.
Grade: C -