By Caryn James | James on Screens June 20, 2014 at 8:48AM
Unanswered questions linger after "Third Person" ends, but not the kind Paul Haggis has said he intends his ambiguous film to provoke. What I really want to know is: Does he take us for idiots, or does he actually believe that this pretentious, simplistic film has any substance? Is he cynical or deluded? Either way, the result is the same: an overwrought, vapid three-strand story, set in New York, Rome and Paris. Each thread involves a man, a woman and a shadowy third element of the triangle (a spouse, a child) hovering over the relationship. Each story turns out to be more banal than the last. I was hoping that since Haggis famously left Scientology he might have jettisoned its self-righteous tone too. But his m.o. here is the same as it was in "Crash" and his screenplay for "Million Dollar Baby": pretentious tone, zero depth.
The film's emptiness is especially maddening because the strongest
and admittedly most biographical plot is so visceral and intriguing. Liam
Neeson is Michael, a Pulitzer Prize winning winning novelist, and Olivia Wilde is
his lover, Anna, a talented journalist who joins him in his Paris hotel. Their
relationship is sexy, teasing, fraught, painful as they pretend to push each
other away and then tumble together. The actors are dynamic, their playfulness refreshingly
different from the rest of the film. When Michael outsmarts her, Anna ends up running
naked through the halls; Wilde's giggle says everything about Anna's taste for
danger. With a dark secret lurking at its center, this is the story that kept me
with Haggis for a good long time.
That tension doesn't last, of course, because we're constantly cutting away to other stories. As Julia, Mila Kunis is surprisingly convincing in a role that makes no sense. For reasons it takes forever to discover, Julia has one last chance to get visitation rights to see her son, which means battling her furious ex, a painter played by James Franco. We're meant to see her as a loving mother, which makes her ditziness improbable -- why does she miss so many appointments about the custody? She turns down a front-desk job at the Mercer Hotel, where she was once a regular guest, choosing to work there as a maid because, she says, "Maids are invisible -- at least they were to me. " She's dead broke, and might have asked whether the front-desk gig paid better, but then we wouldn't have gotten Haggis's sanctimonious line.
The most ludicrous of the stories focuses on Adrien Brody as Scott, an American in Rome who buys stolen fashion designs to make knock-offs. In a bar, he meets an attractive, apparently homeless Roma woman, Monika (Moran Atias), who needs money to pay thugs who have smuggled her daughter into the country. (Both characters are doing black-market deals; we get it.) Anyone would suspect her sob story is a con, which makes Scott's actions thoroughly implausible, even after we learn about the guilty act that may have motivated him to help her. .
The voice Michael hears in his head at the start, saying "Watch me," echoes through Scott's story, as their plots all-too neatly come to mirror each other. The contrivance makes each character's secret less personal, less believable, less trenchant. And if the interlocking stories are meant to suggest that that their problems are universal, or even that the various characters may be part of the same person, those are sophomoric places to land after all this.
The story begins to unmoor itself from geography. A note dropped in Paris can be picked up in New York -- or is it vice versa? But if location doesn't matter, why set the film in three glamorous cities, except to make it all look pretty? (Cinematographer Gian Filippo Corticelli does that much.)
The film's open-endedness and occasional flights from
reality aren't the problem; a smart audience has no problem with artistic ambiguity.
Haggis' indulgent self-importance and facile ideas are the real issues, because
they thwart any genuine emotional drama. The final 15 minutes are so
insultingly flimsy that they undermine the entire film.
Near the end, Michael, having coasted on his reputation and his Pulitzer for many previous books, hands over some pages his editor finds to be brutally honest, raw and stunning. If only "Third Person" had been that, instead of this pretentious cloud of nothing.