Unanswered questions linger after “Third Person” ends, but not
the kind Paul Haggis has said he intends his ambiguous film to provoke. What I
really want to know is: Does he take us for idiots, or does he actually believe
that this pretentious, simplistic film has any substance? Is he cynical or deluded?
Either way, the result is the same: an overwrought, vapid three-strand story, set
in New York, Rome and Paris. Each thread involves a man, a woman and a shadowy
third element of the triangle (a spouse, a child) hovering over the
relationship. Each story turns out to be more banal than the last. I was hoping that since Haggis famously left Scientology he
might have jettisoned its self-righteous tone too. But his m.o. here is the same
as it was in “Crash” and his screenplay for “Million Dollar Baby”: pretentious
tone, zero depth.
The film’s emptiness is especially maddening because the strongest
and admittedly most biographical plot is so visceral and intriguing. Liam
Neeson is Michael, a Pulitzer Prize winning winning novelist, and Olivia Wilde is
his lover, Anna, a talented journalist who joins him in his Paris hotel. Their
relationship is sexy, teasing, fraught, painful as they pretend to push each
other away and then tumble together. The actors are dynamic, their playfulness refreshingly
different from the rest of the film. When Michael outsmarts her, Anna ends up running
naked through the halls; Wilde’s giggle says everything about Anna’s taste for
danger. With a dark secret lurking at its center, this is the story that kept me
with Haggis for a good long time.
That tension doesn’t last, of course, because we’re
constantly cutting away to other stories. As Julia, Mila Kunis is surprisingly
convincing in a role that makes no sense. For reasons it takes forever to discover,
Julia has one last chance to get visitation rights to see her son, which means battling
her furious ex, a painter played by James Franco. We’re meant to see her as a loving
mother, which makes her ditziness improbable — why does she miss so many appointments
about the custody? She turns down a front-desk job at the Mercer Hotel, where
she was once a regular guest, choosing to work there as a maid because,
she says, “Maids are invisible — at least they were to me. ” She’s
dead broke, and might have asked whether the front-desk gig paid better, but
then we wouldn’t have gotten Haggis’s sanctimonious line.
The most ludicrous of the stories focuses on Adrien Brody as
Scott, an American in Rome who buys stolen fashion designs to make knock-offs. In
a bar, he meets an attractive, apparently homeless Roma woman, Monika (Moran
Atias), who needs money to pay thugs who have smuggled her daughter into the
country. (Both characters are doing black-market deals; we get it.) Anyone
would suspect her sob story is a con, which makes Scott’s actions thoroughly implausible,
even after we learn about the guilty act that may have motivated him to help
Haggis’s smooth direction keeps the film moving fluidly, which
helps gloss over the screenplay’s clumsiness. That’s another Haggis trademark,
which explains why “Crash” could have won the Best Picture Oscar and also be so
derided. But as the strands begin to converge, every turn that is meant to be
revelatory — the other lover who keeps
calling Anna, the phone message from his daughter that Scott plays over and
over — seems obvious or forced.
The voice Michael hears in his head at the start, saying
“Watch me,” echoes through Scott’s story, as their plots all-too neatly
come to mirror each other. The contrivance makes each character’s secret less personal,
less believable, less trenchant. And if the interlocking stories are meant to suggest
that that their problems are universal, or even that the various characters may
be part of the same person, those are sophomoric places to land after all this.
The story begins to unmoor itself from geography. A note dropped
in Paris can be picked up in New York — or is it vice versa? But if location
doesn’t matter, why set the film in three glamorous cities, except to make it
all look pretty? (Cinematographer Gian Filippo Corticelli does that much.)
The film’s open-endedness and occasional flights from
reality aren’t the problem; a smart audience has no problem with artistic ambiguity.
Haggis’ indulgent self-importance and facile ideas are the real issues, because
they thwart any genuine emotional drama. The final 15 minutes are so
insultingly flimsy that they undermine the entire film.
Near the end, Michael, having coasted on his reputation and
his Pulitzer for many previous books, hands over some pages his editor finds to
be brutally honest, raw and stunning. If only “Third Person” had been that, instead of this pretentious cloud