The sheer ambition is staggering, but the results are unsightly.
The sheer ambition on display in Third Person, from Crash writer-director Paul Haggis, is staggering and admirable without question. It’s actually a very, very rare thing to behold, with Haggis carefully constructing an intricately woven ensemble love story set in three famous cities with just a hint of supernatural mystery blanketing the entire thing. Despite the film feeling earnest and being a clear labor of love, it also manages to feel absolutely wrong in so many ways that it’s quite painful to sit through. Haggis had a beautiful vision in mind, but the elements used to deliver it from his brain to ours are, frankly, unsightly.
Liam Neeson leads the ensemble of A-listers in the tri-story drama, starring as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who’s struggling desperately with writer’s block while piecing together his latest novel in an extravagant hotel room in Paris. This battle with creation is one of the film’s two major themes, the other being the unmerciful nature of love and longing. Representing love’s viciousness for Neeson is Olivia Wilde, who plays his nutty mistress staying in a suite a couple floors below his.
Their story line consists of them alternating between them being comically cruel to each other and hysterically in love, having wild sex at the drop of a hat. Nothing about their relationship feels authentic, believable, or natural, with them pinball-ing from brutal to enamored way too quickly to take seriously. Yes, there are couples in real life who have similar up-and-down, abusive relationships, but Wilde and Neeson’s relationship is so hammy, desensitizing, and exhausting you’ll want to take a nap. They’re just not relatable enough to make investment in them worthwhile. The pair’s acting does have energy, however, and in isolated moments they’re quite magnetic.
More interesting is a second love story involving Adrien Brody, playing an American in Rome who’s so unimpressed with the city all he wants is a burger, which he waltzes into a pub called Bar Americano to find, but with no luck. Instead, he meets a beautiful gypsy (Moran Atias), the first thing he’s found in Rome he actually likes (though he claims the shot of limoncello they share to be the first as a pick-up line). His attraction to her is so strong that he’s compelled to help her when her daughter’s life is threatened and she must come up with ransom money somehow. This is easily the most enjoyable strand of the three stories, as it mixes elements of danger and betrayal with Brody and Atias’ potent chemistry. It also heavily recalls the work of Antonioni (one of Haggis’ favorites) in a good way.
Mila Kunis leads the third story as a hotel maid in New York entrenched in a custody battle over her son with a cold-hearted painter played by a vacant James Franco. Kunis’ character is positioned to be the film’s most sympathetic, with everyone in her life having zero belief in her, but again, the obtuse way in which her plight is presented derails it early on. The final showdown between she and Franco is as overblown and numbing as the climactic gunshot in Crash.
The supernatural element I mentioned earlier comes in the form of Haggis interconnecting the three stories when they couldn’t possibly be, as they take place thousands of miles apart. We see Kunis, who’s supposed to be in New York, clean up Neeson’s Paris hotel room, for instance. The revelation that makes sense of all this is clever and actually ties in to the film’s themes nicely, but by the time we get there we’re so depleted it barely leaves an impression.