“Third Person,” the latest interlocking drama from “Crash” writer-director Paul Haggis, is as uninvolving as the detached moniker suggests.
It attempts to serve up deep truths about love and loss, but only manages to be precious and overheated. It’s hard to imagine it provoking the same passionate debates as the Oscar-winning “Crash,” which divided cinephiles with its depiction of racism in Los Angeles.
Say what you will about that movie, at least it had vitality and interesting characters. The same cannot be said of “Third Person,” which originally debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
As a struggling author, Liam Neeson keeps taking off his glasses in front of his laptop to show his tortured creative process, while Mila Kunis cries buckets of tears and James Franco furrows his brow, but still we don’t care. Olivia Wilde is especially ill-served as Neeson’s emotionally elusive lover, who delights in reading his diary out loud (where she’s written about in the third person — get it?) and running starkers through a Parisian hotel; poor Kim Basinger is reduced to teary phone scenes with her estranged husband, Neeson’s blocked writer.
None of these talented actors can rescue the tepid melodrama.
The movie primarily revolves around three couples: Neeson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael, holed up in the hotel and trying to finish his latest work while conducting an affair with Wilde’s Anna; fashion design thief Scott (Adrien Brody) who meets troubled gypsy Monika (Moran Atias) in Rome; and Julia (Kunis), a former soap opera actress working as a chambermaid while she tries to get visitation rights with her son by a famous painter (Franco) in New York.
Michael and Anna, a journalist aspiring to be a novelist, play cat and mouse games with each other to the amusement of hotel workers; shady Scott strikes up a conversation with Monika in a bar called Americano while muttering about how he can’t wait to leave Italy. It isn’t long before he’s drawn into Monika’s scheme to get her daughter back.
As for Julia: She’s clearly got issues, and is just as desperate to see her son.
There’s a lot of effective cross-cutting between the locations, to the point where it’s unclear in which city the action is taking place. This murkiness, it later becomes clear, was intentional.
Michael, we discover, has a lot riding on his next book and a tendency to exploit his personal life in his writing. Not for nothing is he accused of being “a man who can only feel through the characters he creates.”
These hints about his ruthless creative habits are the most interesting aspect of “Third Person.” Alas, they are overshadowed by histrionic storytelling, be it characters tossing phones or watches in water in fits of pique or heavy-handed musing about the color of trust. (White, in case you were wondering.)
“Third Person” might be the movie for those eager to see a spectacular cry face from Kunis or Brody in a comically gaudy Italian shirt. The rest may wish they had sped off in one of Monika’s Italian roadsters long before all the pieces click into place.
“Third Person” is an intricately constructed but unaffecting bore. Kinder people might call it an “interesting failure,” but to earn that label it would need to be interesting.