By NATHAN LERNER
“Third Person” is a convoluted tale, replete with multiple, weaved story lines, which take place in three different cities
Michael (Liam Neeson taking a break from action roles) is a writer, who is ensconced in a swanky Paris hotel suite. His acclaimed first novel won a Pulitzer Prize. Since then, Michael has struggled unsuccessfully to recapture the glory of his debut work. Michael is estranged from his wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger). She remains genuinely concerned about Michael and continues to call him intermittently to make sure that he is OK.
Michael is visited by Anna (Olivia Wilde), a comely young brunette, who is three decades younger than he is. They engage in a contentious, albeit sexually-charged, relationship. Anna considers herself a serious writer and the inspiration for Michael’s current book. However, as Michael dismissively points out, her prose consists of fluff about celebrities. Is she his muse or merely a self-deluded strumpet?
In New York, Julia (Mila Kunis) is a once-successful actress, who had appeared on television soap operas. Her ex-husband, Rick (James Franco) is an affluent abstract artist. Their marriage has been ripped apart by Rick’s claim that Julia tried to kill their young son. They are involved in an acrimonious custody battle over their child. Julia is reduced to working as a hotel room service maid. She persistently sabotages her life with a litany of irresponsible acts. When Julia misses a court-mandated evaluation session with a psychologist, her attorney, Theresa (Maria Bello) is exasperated. Did Julia really try to murder her son or has she been falsely accused by a vindictive former spouse?
In Rome, Sean (Adrien Brody) is a shady character, who practices industrial espionage. In an introductory scene, he is seen purchasing stolen fashion designs. These will be used as templates to manufacture knock-offs in third world sweat shops. After scoring the purloined plans, Sean adjourns to a local bar. A strikingly attractive gypsy woman, Monica (Moran Atias), enters and is treated contemptuously by the bartender. Sean tries to flirt with her, but she spurns his overtures. When Monica is evicted from the bar, she leaves her bag behind. This triggers a bomb scare. In an effort to return the luggage, Sean chases down the street after Monica. Instead of gratitude, Sean is greeted with accusations that he has stolen money out of her bag. Monica claims it is the ransom money that she needs to pay a kidnapper for the return of her son. Is Monica actually a victim of a kidnapping scheme or is she scamming a scam artist?
Writer-director, Paul Haggis, has an interesting career trajectory. Once upon a time, he cranked out scripts for “Love Boat” and other meretricious television sitcoms. Then, Haggis penned the screenplay for “Million Dollar Baby,” the Clint Eastwood-directed vehicle that won the 2004 Oscar for Best Film. He followed up by writing and directing “Crash.” The film also won the 2005 Oscar for Best Film as well as another one for Haggis as director. This made Haggis the first person to write the screenplay for two consecutive Academy Award-winning Best Films.
Haggis followed up by co-writing the screenplays for Eastwood’s complementary WW II vehicles, “Flags of Our Fathers,” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.” The latter reaped a third Oscar nomination for Haggis in the best screenplay category. Since then, he did triple duty as writer, director, and producer of “In the Valley of Elah” and “The Next Three Days.” Haggis was also involved with the screenplays for “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Silence.”
With “Crash,” Haggis masterfully created an extensive cast of characters and story lines that intersected in surprising ways. The title conveyed the belief that random events collide in unpredictable ways. The film included a denouement, which resolved all of the seemingly disparate story lines.
Haggis’ current work, “Third Person” represents his cinematic nadir. It is an ambitious and keenly-felt work. As a writer trying to recapture his prior creative skill, the film’s novelist character serves as Haggis’ obvious stand-in. Lamentably, although the screenplay uses the same basic narrative blueprint as “Crash,” it ends up devolving into a contrived mess. The term, “third person,” denotes a point of view, which is different from the subjective perspectives of any of the participants in an event or depiction. Here, the title is misleading. It actually constitutes an ironic repudiation of the notion of an objective reality. The denouement is particularly annoying and will leave many viewers confused or frustrated.
“Third Person” assembles an exceptional cast, but they can’t save this misbegotten conceit.
** 1/2 R (for language and some sexuality/nudity) 136 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback