Starring: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody
Directed by: Paul Haggis (“Crash”)
Written by: Paul Haggis (“Crash”)
Writer and director Paul Haggis is no stranger to the narrative device of balancing multiple storylines and character threads and attempting to bring them together physically or thematically. It did, after all, win him a Best Picture Oscar with “Crash,” an award that remains possibly the biggest Oscar stunner of the modern era. With “Third Person,” Haggis, who has only directed two films since 2004, returns to juggling parallel narratives only to clumsily drop them all at once.
“Third Person” tells the tale of three relationships in different stages and circumstances. In Paris, a writer (Liam Neeson) has a complicated relationship with a mistress (Olivia Wilde); in Italy, a businessman (Adrien Brody) has a run-in with a woman (Moran Atias) who is trying to get her daughter back; and in New York, a woman (Mila Kunis) is trying to regain custody of her child from her husband (James Franco) after a serious incident.
Though the screenplay constantly weighs them down, some of the actors of the impressive ensemble are able to turn in good performances in spots. The most consistent of the bunch is Neeson, who finally gets a role where he isn’t kicking ass on air, land or sea. It isn’t exactly nuanced, but it’s one of the least annoying characters in the film. Brody for his part is also fine, particularly where he gets to rattle off a couple of one-liners in the film’s opening. Wilde and Kunis, for their parts, get to show off some chops, though their characters are written tremendously weak. They both get to tap into emotional breakdowns and while their reasons might be absurd (especially in the case of Wilde) they are able to show dramatic range.
The aforementioned characters, however, are just a fraction of the giant roster of people who take up screen time. It becomes a serious issue as Haggis so overstuffs the film that there are often gaps where the audience doesn’t see a certain character for 15-20 minutes – not that the audience would miss any of them. Frankly, the design of the characters and their relationships with one another seems to elicit emotions ranging from indifference to strong indifference.
As the film trudges on, the screenplay and story wither into dust as plot points grow in banality and Haggis runs through the cliché handbook to carry the film forward. The big “twist” and conceit of the film is painfully obvious early on and, for whatever reason, Haggis feels the need to take over two hours to get there. When it finally happens and Haggis pulls the rug from under his audience, it is almost insulting in its execution. If there was anything character or story-wise worth becoming invested in, the last 15 minutes of “Third Person,” including a completely nonsensical, lazy ending, would have been an offense worthy of heaving objects at the screen.
“Third Person” doesn’t really turn into a disaster until its final act. The rest is bad, but generally watchable and mostly inoffensive. In what is becoming a troublesome trend, screenwriters and directors are squandering A-list ensemble casts at an alarming rate. For Haggis, “Third Person” takes a talented cast but a tired idea and runs it straight into the ground. If there is any lesson to be learned from “Third Person,” it is that sometimes less is more.