Writer-director Paul Haggis’ new trio of stories, “Third Person,” echoes the style of “Crash,” his Oscar-winning, multi-story 2004 drama. But it’s much less compelling this time around.
Haggis is a stylish filmmaker. “Third Person” is sleek. The exceptional cast, all of it likely drawn to the project by the opportunity to work with Haggis, does unassailable work. And Haggis’ stories, simultaneously set in New York City, Paris and Rome, usually flow smoothly between each other.
But style and the interlocking stories device don’t make these stories worth telling. On the other hand, a big cast featuring Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, James Franco, Olivia Wilde, Maria Bello, Adrien Brody, Kim Basinger and Moran Atias may make the movie worth watching.
With so many characters moving through three stories, things can get complicated: Who’s who? Who’s doing what to whom? And why?
The movie almost works as a mystery. Haggis gradually dispenses information about the various characters. All of the six principal characters have something in common: a loved one who, in one way or another, is lost to them.
Neeson plays Michael, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who’s working on his new novel in a Paris hotel. When Olivia Wilde’s Anna, Michael’s haughty young lover, arrives, the two dance a passive-aggressive tango of sexual passion and intellectual cruelty.
In New York City, Julia (Kunis) is a young mother desperate to see her 6-year-old son. Her ex-husband, Rick (Franco), a famous artist, is determined to keep them apart.
The most interesting story in “Third Person” may be that of Scott (Brody), an American in Rome who meets Monica (Atias), gypsy woman, in a bar.
Everyone in the film is struggling with guilt, a difficult quest or both. The off-camera voice of a child saying “Watch me” is a repeated clue to why these people are all so miserable.
“Third Person” continues past two hours. As the film struggles to find a three-pronged ending, accelerating ambiguity and hazy magical realism further obscure the already opaque stories. For instance, did Kunis’ Julia, forced to work as a hotel maid because legal bills from her custody battle left her destitute, really walk from a hallway in New York into a room in Paris?
In the end, Haggis turns to smoke and mirrors and gimmicks.