As both a writer and a director, Paul Haggis is known for exploring murky moral waters–see Million Dollar Baby (May you administer illegal euthanasia to someone if you’ve already given her a cute Irish nickname?) and Crash (Is it O.K. to debunk racist stereotypes against African-Americans if you propagate racist stereotypes against Asians in the process?). It should come as no surprise, then, that his latest film, the uneven thriller The Next Three Days, is centered on a similar meditation: Should you break your alleged murderess wife out of jail if to do so you must become a hardened criminal? Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the answer is, essentially, “meh”–a word that also encapsulates my response to this intermittently gripping but ultimately contrived movie that might best be described as Kramer vs. Kramer meets The Shawshank Redemption.
John Brennan (Russell Crowe) is a bearish, mild-mannered English professor at a community college in Pittsburgh (Mr. Crowe struggles with the accent at first, but admirably controls his phone-throwing). We get to see only a five-minute window into his life before the plot goes bananas, but we learn that he’s got a beautiful wife named Lara (Elizabeth Banks) who gets so worked up after a fight with her boss that she lustily mounts her husband in the front seat of their environmentally responsible sedan. The next morning, she rustles the hair of their Sears-catalog-perfect 6-year-old son, Luke (Ty Simkins), and injects some insulin into her shapely thigh. Then she finds blood on last night’s blouse. And then she gets arrested for her boss’ murder.
A few years later, Lara’s in the clink and John and Luke are making do, although the former is depressed and lonely and the latter sports the bowl cut and vacant eyes of the kid from The Shining. For her part, Lara mostly misses sex and (from the looks of it) a blow dryer; Ms. Banks plays an early jail-visit scene as though she’s flirting with her husband over cocktails. John is handling Lara’s appeal, but it’s not going well–through a series of odd flashbacks and some expository dialogue from the Brennans’ lawyer (Daniel Stern, in what amounts to a walk-on cameo), we learn that after their public spat, Lara’s boss was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher in the office parking lot. A co-worker saw Lara leaving the scene of the crime, but she maintains it was a robbery perpetrated by a young woman she bumped into on the way to her car. Lara’s prints are on the weapon, and the only defense she has is her insistence that she heard a button pop off the assailant’s sweater. The button has stubbornly neglected to turn up, and when the request for an appeal is denied, Lara attempts suicide, prompting John to hatch a plot to break her out of jail and flee the country.
A man of letters, John begins his descent into criminality by tracking down Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson), the author of a memoir about multiple successful prison breaks. He learns that he needs fake passports and a reserve of cash to live off of once he gets his family to Yemen (Pennington’s suggestion) or whatever far-flung, American-tourist-free destination he chooses, so he trolls around Pittsburgh’s seedier neighborhoods, getting roughed up and robbed by drug dealers until a deaf biker (yes, really) takes pity on him. John also consults YouTube for tutorials on how to create a “bump key” (a key that will open any lock) and how to break into a car. His first effort at breaking and entering–into the elevators of Allegheny County Jail, the real Pittsburgh correctional facility that serves as a location for much of the action–results in nervous vomiting, but before long he’s fatally shooting people and setting fire to meth labs like a seasoned pro (which, incidentally, is much more believable than Russell Crowe’s lecturing college freshmen about Don Quixote, Haggis’ heavy-handed choice of literary parallel).
The second half of the film picks up the pace, offering moments of real suspense as John finally carries out his plan, but the elements of the escape (doctored medical records, elevator roulette, costume changes, chases through hospital corridors that send orderlies sprawling) aren’t anything new, and while Mr. Crowe is compelling as the desperate, morally ambiguous hero, Ms. Banks’ Lara is so bland and bloodless that one wonders why her husband would risk so much to be with her (I can only conclude that the sex in the Prius must have been spectacular). Mr. Haggis avoids answering the question of whether Lara is actually guilty for most of the film, which is meant, I suppose, to indicate that it doesn’t matter, and that John would do anything for the woman he loves, regardless of her virtue. But the details of the murder seem more ludicrous as the movie progresses (a fire extinguisher? A button?), and when the truth is finally revealed–through another flashback that looks like an Unsolved Mysteries reenactment–it feels more like an afterthought than a climax.
Speaking of afterthoughts, Olivia Wilde has a bit part as a single mom who unwittingly aids and abets the Brennans in their escape, and Brian Dennehy lurches silently through a number of scenes as John’s working-class father. It’s jarring to see such big-name actors in such thankless roles; unlike Crash, The Next Three Days is not an ensemble film, and the supporting players have little do but stare meaningfully at Mr. Crowe (Mr. Neeson has the meatiest of the scraps, but even he is onscreen for only five minutes). Ms. Wilde does get one of the film’s only laughs, however. After revealing that his wife is in prison, John sputters defensively, “She didn’t do it. She didn’t kill that woman.”
“Oh,” Ms. Wilde’s character says, taken aback. “Good!”
What else is there to say, really?
The Next Three Days
Running time 122 minutes
Written and Directed by Paul Haggis
Starring Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Ty Simpkins, Brian Dennehy, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson