Film Review: Third Person

Writer-director Paul Haggis’ new film will most likely screen soon on long airline flights: perfect for a movie where you sometimes don’t know where you are, and with so many plot ellipses you needn’t worry if you missed something while in the loo.

Using a puzzle-like multi-story structure in Third Person similar to his Oscar-winning Crash (2005), director Paul Haggis is clearly hoping, as the current saying goes, to write, direct, repeat. Repeat again. He has changed the locale from Los Angeles to three other cities, and couples: Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde in Paris; James Franco and Mila Kunis in New York; Adrien Brody and Moran Atias in Rome. With that lineup, we have every reason to expect exciting yet ironically oh-so-true points of convergence and maybe “six degrees of separation” type insights which will tie up in a novelistic fashion. Didn’t happen.

Meanwhile, in trying to suss out the different plot strands, you drift off wondering who the “Third Person” might be. Would it be a lost child who comes up sooner or later in all the storylines? A dumped spouse conveniently accessed by Skype or iPhone? Maybe it’s the narrative voice used by the character we begin with: Michael, a Pulitzer Prize winner played by Liam Neeson, who refers to himself as a “he” in his autobiographical novels, even his personal journals.

But this implies a certain cool, maybe even cold, objectivity. With his tortured, unshaven look, an ashtray overflowing with stubbed-out cigarettes, and a frustrated slamming down of a computer lid demonstrating writer’s block, Neeson looks the part of a romantic, distraught writer. As his ex observes in one of the better lines of the film, “You’re a romantic, Michael, in love with love. It’s just people you don’t care about.” Yet he never seems an “It’s all copy/Never trust a writer” kind of guy. Would Jeremy Irons have been a better fit?

Neeson is, however, up to the cat-and-mouse games of his new inamorata: Anna (Wilde), a cheeky—in every way—younger writer. Michael even manages to turn her slightly S&M tactics back on her. Their dance scene in a trendy nightclub may bring up memories of the dangerous Fatal Attraction, with the updated enticement of a little girl-on-girl action. Anna gets disposed of with a clunky, sensationalistic write-off at the end of their segment, though up until then she convinces as an ambitious journalist hoping to use Michael, while still being very much in love with him.

They run happily amok in an upscale hotel where Michael, having left his wife for Anna, is hiding out. We know we’re in Paris thanks to an establishing shot of the Eiffel Tower—may we have something else, please?—but the film’s real star is the interiors of hotels and the living large that can take place there. The camera lingers lovingly on lavish linens, perfectly appointed rooms, all photographed exquisitely by Gian Filippo Corticelli, an award-winning feature film and commercial cinematographer. He even had the good taste to not include chocolates on the pillow.

The Mercer Hotel in New York is up next, where Kunis, playing a former soap-opera actress, is working as a maid for quick cash for legal fees and a schedule flexible enough to help her regain child-visitation rights. Her son is living with her monied bohemian artist ex (Franco). You want to sympathize with her, but she’s a bumbler and maybe a liar, though seemingly too open-natured to be a very good one. Kunis, or maybe Haggis, takes her histrionically over the top, though Franco manages to play against type. You never think you could be scared by the generally genial Franco, but he’s believably patriarchal, even mean-spirited here.

Yet though the film relies heavily on coincidence, one misplaced piece of paper does double duty in two continents-apart hotel suites at the same time. We get the point, but even clever editing can’t make that one stick. Besides, Third Person is too enamored of the material world for such speculative imaginings.

The most successful storyline tracks Adrien Brody in Rome, drawn into an intrigue with a glamorous gypsy-in-distress, or “Roma woman,” engagingly played by Moran Atias. Their connection may or may not be based on trickery, so red herrings work here, and keep us on edge. Is he being made a fool of? And if so, how come, since he’s a slick New York businessman scamming some deals himself? In this odd duck of a role, Brody does some amazing quicksilver comic takes, even while worried about getting “taken.”

Still, the only characters we come to care about are played by actresses in small roles: Kim Basinger, delicate but strong and never bathethic as Michael’s ex; Maria Bello as a feisty lawyer helping Kunis. In this who-done-it of the emotions, trust is a recurring theme. But the movie can’t decide whom to trust, or even if you should. Ever.

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