When Paul Haggis struck Oscar gold in 2006 with Crash, he did so thanks to a charged, multi-faceted LA fable, impressively constructed and wonderfully acted. It controversially nudged out Ang Lee’s beautiful Brokeback Mountain for best picture that year, yet with its themes of racism, poverty and the faded American dream, Haggis’s crackling passion piece was a predictable, if safe, bet to take home the big prize on the big night.
Primarily a screenwriter, the Canadian’s directorial output, despite his latter success, has been sporadic in the eight years since he transitioned from being the guy behind Mountie comedy-drama Due South to an in-demand double Oscar winner (he also secured 2005’s screenplay award for Million Dollar Baby). Both In the Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days were perfectly accomplished for what they were — classy adult thrillers — but they were largely forgettable entries in the Haggis cinematic canon, probably just as safe in the hands of his more serviceable peers.
A desire to regenerate those award-gaudy heights could represent one reason then for Haggis’s decision to make Third Person, an ostensibly high-functioning drama playing to his natural strengths. The regrettable reality, however, is much less fulfilling, for his is a film of imperfectly conceived pretensions, where multiple strands possess few fragments of a soul. Overlong, undercooked, wrapped up as a turbulent chronicle of love and loss, this rests upon its fleetingly interesting laurels to the detriment of a halfway sensible plot. Haggis’s glory days, sadly, seem a long time ago.
At the centre of this muddle, grizzled author Michael (Liam Neeson) taps away at a laptop, reworking a weighty novel that his editor — with a possible sense of unintended irony — is secretly embarrassed to read. Around him swirls a disparate collection of competing and vaguely connected arcs, each one jostling for a measure of ultimately unobtainable relevance.
In Rome, Adrien Brody’s Scott, a faintly obnoxious American wheeler dealer, flirts with the no doubt thrilling world of fashion industry espionage before beginning a very different flirtation with crisis-stricken gypsy Monika (Moran Atias). Across the Atlantic, New Yorkers Rick (James Franco) and Julia (Mila Kunis) duel in a toxic custody battle over the son that she may or may not have tried to kill.
Meanwhile, Anna (Olivia Wilde) shows up at Michael’s Parisian hideaway seeking a mentor’s guidance, providing a lover’s solace. A scowling Kim Basinger appears intermittently as Elaine, his dreary wife, phone glued to her ear throughout.
That it is a mixed bag should be obvious from the beginning. The approach admittedly has its virtues but there exists no obvious common thread until the latter stages. Given Third Person’s ponderous length, the decision to wait so long before unspooling the central conceit is questionable in the extreme.
Haggis’s failure here is two-fold. None of the component storylines are especially engaging, peopled with barely likeable characters and cursed by a hazy delivery. Beyond that, in contrast to the shrewd, often elegant intersection of moments and faces in Crash — hardly the first film to employ the technique, of course — the mostly self-contained morality plays display only rare traces of shared DNA. Granted, elements occasionally brush lightly against each other, one bleeding into the next, but they serve as a distraction, faded signposts on the way to a mildly compelling destination.
In truth, the consistent failure is one of interest. None of the meandering scenarios does enough to hold an audience’s sympathy; there is simply little to care about. The shifty Brody’s Roman holiday helps, initially, to distract from the drudgery around it, yet this soon becomes weighed down by its own uncertainties and a somewhat preposterous scam-cum-redemption tale.
Haggis keeps his intentions shrouded on all fronts until the very end and, while the Manhattan-based familial strife between Kunis and Franco offers up nothing of note, Michael’s central, overarching narrative undergoes the most searching elucidation. In one respect his relationship with the other characters just about holds its shape, a pretty design on the wider canvas. On the other hand, however, the source of Wilde’s cruel volatility flies in, uncomfortably, from left field. The already straining melodrama is suddenly replaced by a grimier edge; it feels cheap and gratuitously shocking
Haggis might have overstretched himself in mounting an ambitious though flawed contemporary soap opera, but his latest feature is not devoid of redeeming traits.Third Person is a sumptuously captured effort, bursting with a rich visual style that paints each segment in its own distinct colours. The Italian vistas are postcard depictions of warm Mediterranean shades and sepia hues; Paris a more luscious affair replete with five-star luxury, its cool Euro exteriors forming the backdrop to Neeson’s glowering process. Framed by wintery tones to match its overall mood, the The New York setting bristles with apt misery.
Visual flourishes, too, courtesy of cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli, add some degree of class to the proceedings. From a hotel suite filled with a garden’s worth of delicate white roses to the azure swimming pool that fills the screen early on, a lone figure later fading beneath its surface, there are mournful hints of the film that Haggis perhaps intended to make, fine cast and clever concept in hand.
An edited version of this article was first published here.