Paul Haggis is not a subtle filmmaker.
He won an Oscar for best director for “Crash,” a polarizing drama that explored race and human relations with all the subtlety of hitting a hammer on our heads. The symbolism was brazenly self-aware, and Haggis made darn sure that we acknowledged it.
He brings some of those same sentiments – and story treatment – to “Third Person,” though with less success. And certainly less verve. It’s a somewhat dreary multi-storied tale with characters that are all broken in some way. It emerges as an exploration of love and trust that gets us worked up, then doesn’t go anywhere at the cost of a plot twist that leaves us feeling robbed.
Three stories unfold in the film.
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We follow struggling novelist Michael (Liam Neeson) and his mistress Anna (Olivia Wilde) in Paris. Michael won a Pulitzer for his first book and is struggling to write another follow-up. Anna is a spit-fire tease who loses interest in Michael after he tells her he has left his wife (Kim Basinger, only seen talking on the phone).
Scott (Adrien Brody) is on a business trip in Rome, where he wanders into a bar and meets Monika (Moran Atias), who is street-tough beautiful, and clearly on edge. Scott is immediately attracted to her and discovers she harbors some dark secrets.
Julia (Mila Kunis) lives in New York City, and is trying to regain custody of her son after a tragedy separated them. Her lawyer, Theresa (Maria Bello) is exasperated because Julia keeps missing important court dates and appointments. This is all pleasing to Rick (James Franco), Julia’s artist ex-husband, who clearly doesn’t have a connection to their child.
The film’s first act is basically set-up, as we get to know the characters and their plights. It’s involving enough.
But things really kick into gear in the second act, as things get messy – particularly for Julia – and danger sets in for Scott and Monika. Their story is most compelling.
Haggis also wrote the script, and he keeps his stories full of emotion. Top-notch performances all around, especially by Kunis, ignite his words. We begin to feel for these people as they grasp to hold onto control. Haggis is also in top form here, moving his characters around his universe like pawns on a chess board. He relishes in watching them clash.
And just when the stories being to swell, Haggis switches gears. The film’s momentum quiets down. Michael becomes the conscience of the film.
And that’s not satisfying. Michael, writing in his journal, refers to himself in third person. So does the film, in a way.
Still, it’s beautifully executed, ambitious and the acting is a marvel to watch. But “Third Person” feels strangely detached.