Love, Trust, Regret, Packaged into Three
Sounds, images, and characters overlap and converge in writer/director Paul Haggis’ Third Person. It’s the driving twist to a plot that melodramatically, if not vaguely, stitches together three romantic narratives around New York, Paris, and Rome. Or are there really three different locations? The central conceit of this movie is that the three relationships we follow may not be separate stories at all, but somehow intertwined. When Olivia Wilde leaves her upscale Parisian hotel suite, she passes Mila Kunis as a chambermaid, who we know has just taken a job making beds at a dingy Manhattan hotel. It’s not overt, but clearly we’ve entered into a movie that would rather posit deep logical questions than reinforce us with any answers.
That’s Haggis, who seems to enjoy dancing on the line the between Hollywood entertainment and cerebral demand. He’s most popular for directing Crash, another woven fabric of colliding stories that won the Oscar for Best Picture, and quickly became controversial for it. His most recent directorial effort was The Next Three Days, an underrated but enjoyable crime thriller, which scaled down the landscape to Pittsburgh and still exposed another part of Russell Crowe’s persona.
Here his lead is Liam Neeson, a famous writer struggling with his next novel beside cigarette butts, a glass of wine, and guilt in the form of his ex-wife (Kim Basinger) calling. He’s rented out a suite in Paris and finds intermittent interruption from his girlfriend played by Olivia Wilde, another writer hoping he can offer some guidance and critique to her latest manuscript. Instead the two exchange insults and passionate love affairs, intensely catering to the absurdities of the script. These are small people and their problems are treated monumentally.
The second narrative takes place in a omnipresent gray New York City, where a mother, played by a disheveled looking Mila Kunis, tries desperately to win back visitation rights of her son after an undisclosed abuse case. Her ex-husband (James Franco) and his girlfriend (Loan Chobanal) have custody, though they don’t appear to be worthy parents themselves. Maria Bello, another ex-wife, is frustrated legal counsel to Kunis, a former soap opera actress now slumming it as a hotel housekeeper.
The third, and most engaging story line, is set in a sunny Rome, where a conman clothes designer (Adrien Brody) meets a mysterious, ostensibly homeless Romanian woman (Moran Atias) in a bar. He flirts himself into trouble when she explains she has a daughter coming to shore the next day, but needs $5,000 to see her. As the two journey together, the price incrementally increases, and so do his doubts about the veracity of her story.
There are a few engaging and subtle moments in Third Person. Like when Chobanal slowly kneels down to give a crying Kunis a tissue in an empty bathroom or when Brody lingers at the bar aiming to woo this erotic foreign woman. But the movie’s operatic tidal wave consumes those small setups, magnifying each relationship until it loses focus. Names of characters aren’t really important here, and the script treats them with little regard. Just look at the movie’s title. Its vagueness describes the inherent plurality of a dual relationship, how there is always another involved between two people. But that’s mostly just a result of these characters having regrettable, questionable pasts.
When Brody and Atias drive through Italy, he asks her how she acquired their ride. “This is a friend’s car?” he inquires. “You don’t have friends?” she responds. That’s what kind of movie this is. You can ask a question, but you’ll get another one in return. It will seem passive aggressive until you escape the disinteresting vortex in which Haggis has engulfed you. There is a cleverness that he possesses and an adept ability to meld places and people into question. He gets a lot from his actors with very little.
But the dramatic impact and universal thesis he posits is built like a house of cards. When he zooms up to Neeson’s computer, who has just broken through with an idea, his sentence reads, “White. The color of trust. The color of belief.” It’s the puff of wind to this stilted story.