‘Third Person’ Is a Puzzling Triptych of Stories Folded Every Which Way

Olivia Wilde and Liam Neeson in Third Person.
Olivia Wilde and Liam Neeson in Third Person.

Paul Haggis is a Canadian writer-director who specializes in long-winded bores that bind together multiple parallel stories with chewing gum. The fact that one of them, Crash, won an Oscar over Brokeback Mountain in 2006, is a disgrace that is still being hotly debated. Like Vincente Minnelli (The Bad and the Beautiful) or Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), you have to be a genius to juggle ensemble casts and multiple plots simultaneously with coherence, purpose and ease. Mr. Haggis and Third Person do not qualify. Clumsy and contrived, the film never manages to connect the dots in a trio of stories set in three different cities, and I had to pinch myself to keep from falling asleep.

(2/4 stars)

Written and directed by: Paul Haggis
Starring: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis and Adrien Brody
Running time: 137 min.

In the romantic vapors of Paris, Liam Neeson, as a famous author whose latest book has just been rejected, is holed up in a swanky hotel struggling with writer’s block to rethink his life and turn some random ideas into a new novel about a writer who can only feel emotion through the experiences of the characters he creates. Meanwhile, he’s tortured by thoughts of the wife he’s left behind in America (Kim Basinger) and distracted by the violent eroticism of his mistress (Olivia Wilde), a fledgling writer with her own problems, who pops in naked from time to time for raunchy sex.  

In Rome, an American thief (Adrien Brody) who confiscates the collections of Italian fashion designers and sells them to cheap knockoff sweatshops in the States falls for a Romanian immigrant he meets in a bar (Moran Atias) while she is searching for her kidnapped daughter. In New York, a distraught young wife (Mila Kunis) accused of trying to kill her own son is forced to work as a hotel maid to pay the lawyer (Maria Bello) who represents her in a battle with her nasty, self-centered husband (ubiquitous James Franco, who makes movies in his sleep) over child custody. 

The stories seem disconnected and unrelated, but hang in there long enough and you’ll see how one turn in bed leads to another. Some of the characters even pop up in each other’s tales of woe. But the elements in an incredulous triptych always drift along in a ho-hum tempo without any satisfactory payoff. The ensemble is impressive, but the performances are underwhelming. And the twist ending that is supposed to tie the stories together—a vital conceit in any cross-stitching narrative—is merely banal, confusing and predictable.  

The astute and experienced filmgoer will understand the characters are all being invented by Mr. Neeson’s character as he goes along, and in fact they may not exist at all. The twists that plague the film fail to achieve the kind of logic audiences enjoy figuring out for themselves, and you feel duped. Example: when the New York mother fails to show up for a conference with the judge, it’s because she wrote down the address on a slip of paper and left it in the hotel where she works as a chambermaid. But later, when she finds the crumpled piece of paper, it’s in a hotel suite in Paris. Say what? Unlike Babel, there are no clearly drawn narrative arcs, and the stratagem of abrupt editing cuts between cities to resemble pieces of a jigsaw is too artificial to sustain any real mystery. This is odd, since Mr. Haggis is credited with writing the screenplays for two James Bond pictures (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace) and ought to know something about suspense. What he knows about is how to move people around in front of a camera, but in Third Person they don’t go anywhere.  ‘Third Person’ Is a Puzzling Triptych of Stories Folded Every Which Way