POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 11, 2014
In Paul Haggis' film "Third Person," Liam Neeson plays Michael, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who has lost his creative mojo and is holed up in a Paris hotel, completing his latest opus. Accompanying him but staying in a separate suite is his girlfriend, Anna (Olivia Wilde), a wacko celebrity journalist who has literary pretensions that Michael is quick to shoot down. They go at each other with the merciless cruelty of two egotists whose only harmonious moments are bouts of frantic sex.
Their story is one of three that run parallel, bump elbows and, at the very end, unconvincingly intersect in the manner of the multiple narratives of "Crash," Haggis' Oscar-winning movie. "Third Person" was filmed predominantly on sets at the Cinecitta studios in Rome, with that city effectively standing in for Paris and New York, as the film jumps from place to place.
A second strand focuses on Julia (Mila Kunis), a former soap opera star and the hyper-agitated ex-wife of Rick (James Franco), a successful painter. An impatient lawyer, Theresa (Maria Bello), is helping Julia fight for legal visitation rights to see her young son, whom Rick claims Julia put in harm's way.
A scatterbrained mess who is short of cash and always on the verge of a meltdown, Julia is forced to take a job as a hotel chambermaid. Rick is a cold, vindictive narcissist whose anger at her stems partly from guilt over his own neglectful parenting.
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The third plot line concentrates on Scott (Adrien Brody), a weasel of a corporate spy in Paris, visiting the city to steal fashions for cheap copies to be rushed into the marketplace. He meets his match in treachery at a place called the Bar Americano, where he puts the moves on Monika (Moran Atias), a beautiful, haughty Roma woman to whom he impulsively gives money after she tells him that her 8-year-old daughter is being held for ransom on a boat. Or at least that's what she says. Once Scott becomes involved, the ransom price escalates.
The movie, which runs an interminable 137 minutes, is nothing if not ambitious. Haggis has cited Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up" as an inspiration. "Third Person" is so meticulously acted by the ensemble that you are almost seduced into believing that its parts add up to a grand overview of the human condition, especially as it relates to love. But they don't, because the main characters are shallow, selfish nincompoops, and there is no love in sight — just its absence — as these mutually suspicious go-getters jockey for advantage.
It's hard to pinpoint the moment when that sinking feeling sets in, and you realize that these stories aren't going anywhere in particular and that no ideas will be voiced beyond pseudo-poetic, wince-inducing statements like "white is the color of trust; it is the color of belief."
The storytelling is infuriatingly coy, as if Haggis were trying to fool you (and himself) into thinking that he has something to say. "Third Person" finds Haggis, like Neeson's screen alter ego, running on empty.
Review by Stephen Holden, New York Times