Paul Haggis explores the audacity of despair in morose, muddled anthology
Directed by Paul Haggis
Cast: Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, James Franco, Adrien Brody
Acclaimed writer-director Robert Altman didn’t invent the massive, ensemble-cast, anthology-style film. But with movies like Nashville, MASH, Short Cuts and Kansas City, he became the artistic godfather of crazy-quilt stories encompassing dozens of characters whose seemingly unconnected lives eventually intertwine (often shockingly) in the closing moments of the narrative. Spike Lee gave his take on Altman’s oeuvre with 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Paul Thomas Anderson picked up on the vibe and carried it into the ’90s with films such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Paul Haggis jumped in on the tail end of the panoply trend—sometimes known as “hyperlink cinema”—with his overrated, Oscar-stealing ensemble Crash. Ten years later, and Haggis finds himself drifting back to the interlocking narrative style with his latest writing-directing effort, Third Person.
Haggis has obviously dumped a lot of resources into this terribly high-minded romantic drama. The film was shot on location in Rome, Paris and New York City. The crowded A-list cast includes Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, Kim Basinger, Adrien Brody, Maria Bello and James Franco. It’s a shame, then, that the end result is so confused, contrived and criminally overinflated.
The film starts by introducing us to a welter of characters. We’ve got a brittle lawyer (Bello) hiding some deep tragedy, a sad-eyed maid (Kunis) struggling to get custody of her child, a famous New York artist (Franco, of course) trying to keep his family together and a slightly shady businessman (Brody) ugly-Americaning his way through Italy. Most importantly, however, there’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Neeson) hunkered down in a high-end hotel room in Paris. Since this is a movie, he’s struggling with writer’s block. Distraction comes in the form of his lover, a young wannabe writer (Wilde) with a taste for older men. The two engage in a scrappy, insult-filled affair on high-thread-count linen. Neeson and Wilde have an interesting chemistry, a cold spark of love and hate, and it’s as close to real drama as the film gets. Neeson is always commanding to watch on screen, and here he almost manages to make inaction interesting. Wilde is a visually arresting figure—all high cheekbones and bottomless eyes—who gives her character a mercurial emotionality that nearly makes you want to figure out what her deal is. But how do all these other random people fit into this? The answer is, not all that well.
The messed-up maid is fighting a losing custody battle (with the smug artist) after a tragic incident got her stripped of her motherly duties. The shady businessman crosses paths with an attractive Roma woman trying to rescue her daughter from child smugglers. Issues of love, trust and imperiled children underscore each of the film’s three main stories. Every one of the characters gets at least one big, plumbing-the-depths-of-the-soul moment to milk the hell out of. Those moments are clearly what drew the actors to these roles, thoughts of Oscar noms dancing in their heads. Impressive as these momentarily showy explosions of emotion might look on an acting reel, they don’t really succeed in making us care about these marionette-like characters. After all Haggis practically admits the only reason we’re sticking around is to find out how they’re connected to one another.
Occasionally the disparate storylines look like they might be on the verge of interacting with one another. But astute viewers will note that—like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s similarly muddled Babel—geographical and temporal conditions sort of prevent this. Eventually, after waaaaay too much portentous melodrama, the film drops its shocking drama bomb, laying waste to everything that came before it. In this moment it’s easy to see Haggis chuckling over his own cleverness. It’s the cleverness of a writer who thinks very highly of his own ideas. But the twist in this tale amounts to a major dramatic misstep. It does, more or less, wrap all that’s come before it up in a tidy bow, but it lets all the air out of the entire film, leaving viewers with nothing to show for their 2 hours and 17 minutes’ worth of attention. Even worse, if you’ve actually taken note of the film’s title on the way into the theater, you’ll probably have it sussed out long before Haggis lets the cat out of the bag.
Third Person looks like a real, important, terribly weighty film. And maybe it is in some sense. But it’s very little fun to watch. It’s interminably glum, entirely humorless and feels at least an hour longer than its run time. Its overly intellectual, excessively literate payoff is admirable in its ambition. Haggis is no Hollywood hack; that must be admitted. But (and that word has been used a lot in this review) Third Person ultimately falls apart under the weight of its own self-important ideas.