Liam Neeson is forced to stroll around Paris with Olivia Wilde in "Third Person." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
‘Third Person’ Director: Paul Haggis Stars: Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
Paul Haggis is mostly known for making the Oscar-winning “Crash,” which in some circles is legions more notorious than David Cronenberg’s “Crash,” the film about people who get an erotic charge from automotive destruction. To his credit, Haggis has more going on than his biggest film. He was key in rebooting James Bond with “Casino Royale,” while his extensive TV credits include everything from “Thirtysomething” to “Walker, Texas Ranger.” There’s a lot in his head, even if it’s more breadth than depth, and on some level you can appreciate the ambition — the insane, borderline arrogant ambition — of “Third Person,” the fifth film he’s directed and not just written.
Returning to the multi-character format of his biggest hit, Haggis chooses a lighter unifying subject than the various levels of racism inherent in all Los Angelinos. This one’s about love — although sometimes it’s about the dark side, like lying, deception, manipulation or playfully trapping your lover outside of your hotel room while she wears no clothes. Liam Neeson plays a novelist — a Pulitzer-winning novelist, of course — holed up in a Paris hotel and messing (and messing around) with his young lover (Olivia Wilde).
But this is only one of the film’s story threads. Peppered throughout is the tale of an Ugly American businessman (Adrien Brody) in Rome who finds his anti-Italian beliefs challenged when he finds himself helping a desperate, maybe not very trustworthy woman (Moran Atias). Also fighting for screentime is Mila Kunis, as a desperate, terminal screw-up in New York who’s trying very badly to win back visitation rights to her son due to an event that remains cryptically withheld.
Adrien Brody tries to comfort a desperate Moran Atias in "Third Person." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Wait, what does this class-based story have to do with love? And why are there soon these strange, inexplicable rhymes between the three tales (which of course eventually start intersecting)? It becomes quickly clear Haggis isn’t trying to guide us towards a single thesis or even one idea but to let our minds roam, like a master novelist would in a sprawling, assured tome. Thing is that Haggis, no matter his talents, isn’t a master, and the more “Third Person” starts to unify its three sections, the more clumsy it becomes.
It could be that Haggis mashed together some storylines that didn’t really fit anywhere else, even if they bore a few superficial similarities. Admittedly it has its moments; the Neeson-Wilde section has some halfway decent screwball-aspiring banter, or at least actors with real, sexy chemistry. But it’s also a casually man’s view of gender politics, which extends to how it introduces a jilted wife (Kim Basinger) then mostly forgets about her. It would almost be better if she had never been included at all.
Much worse, “Third Person” indulges in Haggis’ most awful tendency: third act surprise twists that turn heavy subject matter into cheap gotchas. Some of these revelations require far more exploration; as shocks they feel unearned, even distasteful — there to get a mere rise out of the audience. “Third Person” is a big stew of the things Haggis does well and the things neither he nor anyone should ever do.