The line of dialogue is whispered during a couple of key sequences in Third Person, the new film from Paul Haggis, the Academy Award-winning director of Crash (Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay). As you might imagine, the phrase insinuates itself dramatically into the hearts of the characters who hear it, as they attempt to heed the call. They search, in vain, their guilty memories, believing that if only they could see what they missed, they might find redemption.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael (Liam Neeson) smokes and stares at his computer screen in Paris while waiting for his muse. And she appears in the guise of Anna (Olivia Wilde), the ravishing mistress he has sent for to share his lonely hotel room as he completes his next work, far away from his wife Elaine (Kim Basinger), the brittle woman unable to inspire him.
In New York, Julia (Mila Kunis) struggles to make ends meet as she fights a losing custody battle against her famous artist ex (James Franco) for the right to have unsupervised visits with their son. It is obvious that Julia, a temperamental flake, had a near tragic lapse of judgment that placed her in these desperate straits. Finally, in Rome, Scott (Adrien Brody) wanders into a bar and settles across from a mysterious and beautiful woman (Moran Atias) who sucks him into a situation right out of the “Let’s dupe the dumb American for all his money” playbook.
But beyond the futile efforts of the characters, the line is a bit of an attention-grabber from Haggis, too. He wants us to watch him, to focus on what he believes is a dazzling literary play; his stringing along of all these characters across three international cities — each city weighted with cultural significance while this collection of wounded souls bears a cross fraught with personal sins somehow linked one to another across the globe, waiting to be pulled taut, binding them together.
Third Person is pure conceit, an elaborate trick, and Haggis dreams of his ability to render it all seamlessly so that we never see or feel his touch (unlikely based on his heavy-handed approach in Crash).
That is what the best novelists do, and in the case of cinema, what I would argue non-American filmmakers accomplish with a sterling sense of the intimate and sometimes more political or ideological notions woven into the larger tapestry.
Unfortunately, though, Haggis falls into the similar trap that derailed the screenwriting career of Ronald Bass who, during the late 1980s through the 1990s, became a one-man factory for the studio system, churning out screenplays (Black Widow, Rain Man, Sleeping With the Enemy, The Joy Luck Club, Waiting to Exhale, My Best Friend’s Wedding and Entrapment) tailored for maximum pop melodrama. The movies based on his scripts played like Book of the Month selections for audiences, packaged with stars whose very presence provided an ironclad seal of approval.
Things went off the rails though with the 2000 release Passion of Mind, a romantic fever-dream of a thriller featuring Demi Moore as a woman unable to determine which of the two double lives she finds herself living is real. One moment she’s in the U.S. racing between meetings as a hard-driven professional woman admired for her business savvy and sharp instincts, but all alone at the end of the day in her penthouse suite until she wakes in Europe in a more rustic fantasy, pleasing to a point, but somehow always incomplete.
The narrative has all the markings of a writer’s dilemma straight out of a workshop session at some isolated retreat.
And that is exactly the predicament Haggis fashions for himself with Third Person. The perspective shifts between the cities and the familiar attractive leads, but there is a lack of specificity in the locations, no undeniable use of these urban centers as characters themselves and to make matters worse, as the overall narrative drags on, you start to realize that none of the individual stories has enough force to stand on their own.
Toward the end, when Third Person is supposed to form a greater whole, the sum is not only less than the parts; it has no cohesion at all.
At one point, Michael meets with a contact at his publishing house and is told that his latest work reads like “random characters making excuses for your life.”
Now that’s a tellingly prophetic line from Haggis about his own film. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: D
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