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TIFF Review: Paul Haggis' 'Third Person' With Liam Neeson, James Franco & Olivia Wilde Is Ludicrously Awful

by Kevin Jagernauth
September 10, 2013 5:33 PM
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We're coming on a decade since Paul Haggis' "Crash" won Best Picture at the Oscars, and it's still one of the most divisive victories in recent memory. Detractors of the film are quick to point out the flaws in the L.A.-set drama, citing what they perceive to be the film's crass manipulativeness, one-dimensional characters, clumsy hand with racial politics and eye-rolling core of sentimentality. But frankly, you haven't seen anything yet. Haggis' return to the ensemble drama in "Third Person" makes "Crash" look like a work of understated, subtle art. A disastrously and ludicrously awful effort from the writer/director, absolutely nothing works in this facile, cliche-filled and astoundingly dull film that trades in cheap drama and soap opera theatrics.

Attempting to raise his game, Haggis this time spreads his ensemble around the globe, focusing on three couples. In New York City, Rick (James Franco) is an artist who paints with his hands instead of brushes, because he's Franco and fights to keep his son away from his ex, Julia (Mila Kunis), who may or may not have intentionally strangled him. Meanwhile in Rome, Sean (Adrien Brody) takes a detour from a business trip to try and help a seemingly desperate Monika (Moran Atias) save her daughter from human traffickers. And finally in Paris, Michael (Liam Neeson), a celebrated author is in the midst of a testy, sexually charged affair with Anna (Olivia Wilde), a young writer. So what is the string that ties all these together? The classical issues of trust and deception. Running over two hours, Haggis attempts to keep the audience guessing as to who is lying to whom. Does Monika really have a daughter in danger or is she looking to con Sean? Is Michael really an unapologetic romantic? Is Anna cheating on him? But these overdrawn, hokey plots are not just predictable and tedious, but problematic.

"Women have the gift of being able to deny any reality," a secondary character quips in the film, and it seems to be a point that Haggis is eager to drive home. Certainly, all the female characters in the movie avoid looking at their past. Julia refuses to face the actions that might have ended her young son's life; Anna is oblivious to her own flaws and weaknesses as she wraps Michael around her finger; while Monika's motives may be blinding her to the potential of a better life. But if anything, Haggis equally despises his male characters, all of whom are haunted and wounded by their own various mistakes that continue to reverberate as they also deceive and twist the people in their lives to various cruel ends.

Basically, everyone in the film is mean and damaged, using information about one another to inflict emotional pain. And while there is a separate conversation to be had about whether or not this is some kind of cinematic statement about Haggis' very public split with Scientology, who are known (or at least rumored) to use intel from auditing sessions against their own members, the bottom line is that narratively, absolutely nothing works. "Third Person" is a profoundly immature, almost amateur collection of tales that Haggis desperately tries to tie together with some laugh-out-loud malarkey involving colors that symbolize trust and belief. Scenes that are presented as deeply important—such as Rick being handed a glass of milk from his son, doubling as a coded thematic message, or Kunis smashing some metaphorical glass vases filled with flowers—are so wrong-footed and tonally deaf, you sit jaw agape and how truly misguided the entire endeavor is. 

And Haggis doesn't seem capable to stopping himself for one moment. From the very first frame, it's clear that these three couples and a small handful of side characters, including Rick's girlfriend, Michael's wife Elaine (Kim Basinger) and Julia's lawyer Theresa (Maria Bello), will be connected in one way or another. But striving for some kind of impact, Haggis doesn't tie the strings until he's nearly out of time. As the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the far-too-long and plodding movie play out, the writer/director finally comes to present the full web of characters and how they relate. But they don't add up to anything or add any significant shading to what we've seen before. And when Haggis isn't making unnecessary connections, he presents a couple of last minute twists that are betrayals of the audience's trust instead of being illuminating or enriching (if a director is the unreliable narrator of a film, you've got a problem).

"Third Person" is such an inept and bungled disaster of a movie, it almost feels a bit too harsh to treat it as a punching bag. That said, it's truly shocking just how far and wide Haggis misses the mark. "Third Person" is an audacious failure, one that even its starry cast can't save. With a trite script, and an even more glib thematic undercurrent, "Third Person" is nothing short of an outright embarrassment. [F] 

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  • Patrick | April 3, 2014 11:59 PMReply

    Your review sounds like a personal attack on Mr.Haggis stemming from your own self-hate at being a critic, and not having become a courageous Creator such as he... But that's just how it sounds, and I'm giving you the benefit of doubt. No one deserves such slanderous words. Don't like it fine, but atleast review the 'actual' movie, don't make sweeping derogatory comments about a movie that didn't even exist on the screen.. You got it all wrong... Mila, James, Brody and the Italian Gypsy were all products of Liam Neeson's imagination. The two stories represented his own guilt and redemption over the death of his own son, while taking a call from his mistress (Olivia). They mirrored his current life and his finding his way back to forgiveness and trust of himself... "Watch Me." The basic primal need for all humans... Liam Neeson is coming to terms with his self-doubt as a novelist, and his guilt and torment, as he feels responsible for his son's death. A cheap salesman now, he steals characters (designs) and makes knock-offs (ie. his latest novels). He needs to redeem through the Gypsy (Olivia Wilde), and find the child, to heal his inner Mila Kunis. Franco is his wife (Bassinger) in real time... Ultimately, through the voices, he finds his child again on the fountain within himself, and this time -- he "Watches." The way I see it, if you're going to review a film, you ought to, at the very least, understand the film and describe the narrative accurately... It seems, from your review, that you think all the stories are happening in real time... If that was true, you'd be right, the film sucks... But since that isn't the case, your opinion is based in confusion and very mean spirited. The film is profound, original and brave -- As it is clearly a confession into Mr. Haggis's own deepest fears and inadequacies... He is Liam - He is all of the characters. Haven't seen a screenwriter lay it on the line like that, so blatantly, ever... He's got the balls to come out of the shadows... Do you? Write and direct your own movie, then you can talk. Your revew is irresponsible and destructive... Who's your editor anyway, fire him first for allowing such inaccuarate reporting.... I mean come on?!

  • Eilon | July 4, 2014 6:06 PM

    and I thought the critics who buried this film (in nearly all sites) knew something that I did not catch in this film, or maybe they are just copying from each other. I definitely agree with every word you wrote Patrick. I enjoyed every bit of the film, and unlike many other fun film, it still run in my mind days after seeing it.

  • Tony | April 17, 2014 6:57 AM

    Amen, Patrick! I couldn't have said it any better. Some of those armchair critics seem to have absolutely no insight into the human psyche, while they simply spout their impressions gleaned from a 2-dimensional surface (the screen) onto another 2-dimensional screen (their iPad) in their own dense, lazy, 2-dimensional way. I wouldn't be surprised if, when we saw them in person, they themselves look like some kind of life-size cut-out standing in a cinema lobby. Glad you came to the story's defence, Patrick! As of this writing (April 15, 2014) the film hasn't hit American shores yet, but I should be first in line at the box office when it gets here. Thanks again for a great retort.

  • C | November 11, 2013 5:07 PMReply

    I disagree with this review. I can't say that I enjoyed the film, because it left me depressed. It also left me thinking it over, which is what a good film should do. I'm waiting for it to be released to cinemas so I can see it again. There aren't many films that I would return to the cinema for a 2nd viewing.

  • James | September 11, 2013 8:26 PMReply

    Honestly? The only thing "inept" and "bungled" is this review. But, then, your three favorite movies of 2012 were 'Take This Waltz', 'Rust & Bone', and 'Tabu'. Unlike any other movie of the past several years, "Third Person" -- two days after screening it -- still evokes either 'aha's' as IMPCASE previously mentioned as well as emotional sorting-through. The movie has stayed with me, resonated, made me think, induced discussion. I truly can't remember the last time that's happened. I find Jagernauth's tone and approach and words here appalling; smug, destructive and self-involved simultaneously; nasty as the reviewer is himself.

  • impcase | September 11, 2013 1:55 PMReply

    Saw this at the premiere Monday night. I too think that the reviewer was at a different film. I'm still not sure whether I like this film, but it does (and has) foster conversation and arguments about it. Two days later, and I had an "aha" moment about a scene which I promptly shared with my friend. It was something we had not considered at the time, and agree upon. It's difficult to express without spoiling the film for those who haven't seen it.
    Is this a mainstream film? No. Should you see it? In my opinion yes.

  • Patrick | September 11, 2013 11:30 AMReply

    MBARGA is clearly a studio plant.

  • JJ | September 11, 2013 4:49 AMReply

    Damn, Franco is in this? He's is so many bad movies now that he is reaching Nic-Cage-levels. Which only supports my 'James Franco is the new Nic Cage'-theory. But seriously, the guy is an awesome actor, so I'm hoping he will appear in some better films.

  • serena | September 11, 2013 4:02 AMReply

    Kevin, we always knew you were a closeted Scientologist now out for revenge against those who escaped. Tell us, did that South Park episode accurately depict Xenu?

  • Rob | September 11, 2013 12:16 AMReply

    I too think this reviewer saw a completely different movie than I did. For a movie that is as lacking in subtlety as the reviewer would have us believe, the point of it appears to have completely eluded him (or maybe he's just not trying to spoil it). I'd rather not spoil it either, but I'll just say that I picked up on what was happening and what it really was all about thematically well before it was out of time and my only concern was how heavy-handed it may have been in revealing its true nature to the viewer, but apparently the clues that I picked up on weren't obvious enough for even a seasoned Indiewire reviewer. I thought the way that the story lines were connected was quite ingenious by the end of it but it seems this reviewer was too busy nitpicking the trees to see the forest.

  • mbarga | September 10, 2013 11:38 PMReply

    I watched the film last night. I think this reviewer must have been at a different movie! I thought it was superbly written and skillfully acted. I think the reviewer did not understand the movie at all! He failed to read the symbols correctly or wasn't paying attention!!! He totally missed the point! I don't want to ruin the film and spoil the fun of figuring it out for future viewers. So I will simply say, it is all about grieving and suffering loss. And secondarily about betrayal, lies and trust. Go see this movie for yourself!

  • Marko | September 10, 2013 8:07 PMReply

    I love how you trying to have film reviews that don't say anything about the film in the headline, and then you go "Awww fuck it" with this one.

  • Jessica Baker | September 10, 2013 8:06 PMReply

    I couldn't disagree more, I thought the film was phenomenal.

  • Francesca | September 10, 2013 6:41 PMReply

    I'm afraid we'll have it at Rome Film festival...

  • Stefano | September 10, 2013 8:00 PM

    We'll surely have it.

  • weetiger3 | September 10, 2013 6:14 PMReply

    Most of his cast are friends/board members of Artists for Peace & Justice, so I can understand wanting to help a friend, but surely they read the script first. It all starts with the script and if it's truly as "trite" as you say it is, wth did they think was going to happen? It's easier to make a bad movie of a good script than vice versa. But how does a director of Haggis' stature (I said STATURE, not talent. He may be a hack but he's a hack with an Oscar), make a movie as horrible as you've described? Was no one paying attention? He may have left Scientology but has surrounded himself with people afraid to tell HIM no? (And if it really is that bad, think of how smug all of those Thetans are going to feel.)

  • Rea | September 10, 2013 7:38 PM

    Obviously it's probably not as bad as Jagernauth claims. Indeed, it might even be very good. The Next Three Days also suffered from the insane post-Crash contempt leveled toward Haggis, and yet I found it to be a more-than-competent effort, surprisingly detailed and unpredictable. And fuck everyone: Crash was the best film of 2005 after The New World, and far superior to the narratively-soggy Brokeback Mountain. So was Match Point, Munich, Cache, and at least 10 other films.

  • daniel | September 10, 2013 5:49 PMReply

    The more crappy films that Haggis makes the more you realise how awful Crash actually is.

  • oogle monster | September 10, 2013 5:37 PMReply

    When was the last time Mila Kunis starred in a great movie? Black Swan?

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