We’re coming on a decade since Paul Haggis‘ “Crash” won Best Picture at the Oscars, and it’s still one of the most divisive victories in recent memory. Detractors of the film are quick to point out the flaws in the L.A.-set drama, citing what they perceive to be the film’s crass manipulativeness, one-dimensional characters, clumsy hand with racial politics and eye-rolling core of sentimentality. But frankly, you haven’t seen anything yet. Haggis’ return to the ensemble drama in “Third Person” makes “Crash” look like a work of understated, subtle art. A disastrously and ludicrously awful effort from the writer/director, absolutely nothing works in this facile, cliche-filled and astoundingly dull film that trades in cheap drama and soap opera theatrics.
Attempting to raise his game, Haggis this time spreads his ensemble around the globe, focusing on three couples. In New York City, Rick (James Franco) is an artist who paints with his hands instead of brushes, because he’s Franco and fights to keep his son away from his ex, Julia (Mila Kunis), who may or may not have intentionally strangled him. Meanwhile in Rome, Sean (Adrien Brody) takes a detour from a business trip to try and help a seemingly desperate Monika (Moran Atias) save her daughter from human traffickers. And finally in Paris, Michael (Liam Neeson), a celebrated author is in the midst of a testy, sexually charged affair with Anna (Olivia Wilde), a young writer. So what is the string that ties all these together? The classical issues of trust and deception. Running over two hours, Haggis attempts to keep the audience guessing as to who is lying to whom. Does Monika really have a daughter in danger or is she looking to con Sean? Is Michael really an unapologetic romantic? Is Anna cheating on him? But these overdrawn, hokey plots are not just predictable and tedious, but problematic.
“Women have the gift of being able to deny any reality,” a secondary character quips in the film, and it seems to be a point that Haggis is eager to drive home. Certainly, all the female characters in the movie avoid looking at their past. Julia refuses to face the actions that might have ended her young son’s life; Anna is oblivious to her own flaws and weaknesses as she wraps Michael around her finger; while Monika’s motives may be blinding her to the potential of a better life. But if anything, Haggis equally despises his male characters, all of whom are haunted and wounded by their own various mistakes that continue to reverberate as they also deceive and twist the people in their lives to various cruel ends.
Basically, everyone in the film is mean and damaged, using information about one another to inflict emotional pain. And while there is a separate conversation to be had about whether or not this is some kind of cinematic statement about Haggis’ very public split with Scientology, who are known (or at least rumored) to use intel from auditing sessions against their own members, the bottom line is that narratively, absolutely nothing works. “Third Person” is a profoundly immature, almost amateur collection of tales that Haggis desperately tries to tie together with some laugh-out-loud malarkey involving colors that symbolize trust and belief. Scenes that are presented as deeply important—such as Rick being handed a glass of milk from his son, doubling as a coded thematic message, or Kunis smashing some metaphorical glass vases filled with flowers—are so wrong-footed and tonally deaf, you sit jaw agape and how truly misguided the entire endeavor is.
And Haggis doesn’t seem capable to stopping himself for one moment. From the very first frame, it’s clear that these three couples and a small handful of side characters, including Rick’s girlfriend, Michael’s wife Elaine (Kim Basinger) and Julia’s lawyer Theresa (Maria Bello), will be connected in one way or another. But striving for some kind of impact, Haggis doesn’t tie the strings until he’s nearly out of time. As the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the far-too-long and plodding movie play out, the writer/director finally comes to present the full web of characters and how they relate. But they don’t add up to anything or add any significant shading to what we’ve seen before. And when Haggis isn’t making unnecessary connections, he presents a couple of last minute twists that are betrayals of the audience’s trust instead of being illuminating or enriching (if a director is the unreliable narrator of a film, you’ve got a problem).
“Third Person” is such an inept and bungled disaster of a movie, it almost feels a bit too harsh to treat it as a punching bag. That said, it’s truly shocking just how far and wide Haggis misses the mark. “Third Person” is an audacious failure, one that even its starry cast can’t save. With a trite script, and an even more glib thematic undercurrent, “Third Person” is nothing short of an outright embarrassment. [F]