Third Person is a film that keeps viewers thinking long after the credits have rolled, but in this case, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The latest Paul Haggis feature aims to be mysterious and enigmatic, but is instead a disjointed mess, hampered by a confounding ending that cheats the audience of any sort of satisfying emotional resolution.
Haggis, who wrote and directed Third Person, presents a multi-plotline film similar to his Academy Award-winning film, Crash, (which took home the Best Picture and Best Writing Oscars in 2006). Instead of race relations, Haggis tackles the unhealthy relationships between three couples in different cities. Each pairing wades through messy issues of love, trust, betrayal and their encounters with a third—and sometimes fourth—person who directly or indirectly influences their relationships.
The film boasts an A-list cast, headed by Liam Neeson as Michael, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author trying to finish his next novel from a Parisian hotel suite. Haggis leaves no “struggling writer” cliché out of Michael’s opening shots, from the drawn curtains to a desk cluttered with prescription bottles, a full ashtray, a bottle of wine or liquor, and of course, a MacBook Pro. (No self-respecting novelist could be caught on film with a PC.) Michael has recently left his wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger), to continue his two-year stormy affair with Anna (Olivia Wilde), a society journalist who aspires to write fiction. Anna and Michael do this love-hate dance from the outset: They scratch and fight, they emotionally scar each other and they make love—sometimes all at once.
Across the continent, we first meet an unscrupulous American businessman, Scott (Adrien Brody), as he completes his latest transaction: Stealing high fashion designs for sweatshops. Scott’s the epitome of the ugly American in Rome, deriding the culture while trying to order a burger and a Budweiser from a “Bar Americano.” He meets an attractive Roma woman, Monika (Moran Atias), at the bar, who confides that she’s about to pay $5,000 to a smuggler to be reunited with her young daughter. When the money’s stolen, Scott wants to help, especially since he has (or had) a daughter her own age. A little wary of being conned, he decides to join Monika’s dangerous adventure anyway.
And lastly, in New York, Julia (Mila Kunis) is a former soap actress who’s in the midst of a nasty custody battle for her 6-year-old son with her ex-husband, Rick (James Franco). The courts awarded full custody to Rick and his girlfriend, Sam (Loan Chabanol), after an incident in which the boy was nearly suffocated by dry-cleaning bags. It’s murky whether it was accidental or intentional—but Julia’s given one more chance to prove she’s fit to be a mother. To keep up with the mounting legal costs from her lawyer (Maria Bello) and to show the courts she can hold a job, Julia becomes a housekeeper at a swanky New York hotel.
It’s Julia’s storyline that seemingly overlaps the most between the two continents, but it also becomes the most problematic and confusing. About midway through the film, the audience becomes unsure of what’s real and what’s not as Julia takes a call from her lawyer while she’s cleaning a familiar hotel room. The Julia and Rick story, especially, elicits a number of questions from the viewer: Is that a shift in time and space for Kunis’s character or a mistake in continuity? Does Julia confess to a crime? These and many other questions throughout the film are left largely unanswered.
Franco puts the right amount of smarm in his character for the audience to dislike Rick; and while Kunis shows she can play an anguished mother to the hilt, the clunky dialogue often overshadows the performance. In a scene where she’s crying in a public bathroom, Julia unknowingly meets Rick’s sympathetic girlfriend. Sam comforts Julia for a minute with Julia blurting out amid her tears, “I wish you were my friend.” The dialogue isn’t much better between Michael and Anna and Michael and Elaine, with barbs bordering on the theatrical, as if Haggis were trying to channel his inner Edward Albee. Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli’s score mirrors the bombastic dialogue, too, with noticeable orchestral crescendos coming in too often during key dramatic moments.
Monika and Scott begin a love affair in the midst of their mission, and despite the actors’ best efforts, the chemistry between the characters is barely palpable. Why Scott, who hates the Italian people and culture, would help or sleep with a Roma woman who might double-cross him, too, is bewildering. Their requisite, culminating love scene is more awkward than sexy.
Haggis’s script is awash in ambiguity, which is totally acceptable when addressing the intricacies of tenuous relationships. But there’s a line where ambiguity becomes inscrutable, and Third Person races past that point. There are also an overwhelming number of red herrings—inexplicable twists, major plot points that come out of nowhere, and dropped threads—that the film uses to trick the viewer. Hints of a bomber on the loose in Rome are never addressed; and Anna’s secret, while not surprising given her behavior, still comes out of left field.
The male characters fare much better in Third Person than their female counterparts. The women are either objectified, come off as slightly unhinged or are taken advantage of in some way or another. Rick seems to take pleasure in tormenting Julia by denying visitation; Anna’s tortured past explains the complex relationship with Michael; and Monika is betrayed by both Scott and the “smuggler.”
Like many complex dramas that feature large ensembles, we look for ways these stories intersect; as viewers, we try to piece together the mysteries laid before us onscreen. Because there’s no doubt in Haggis’s track record or the talent of his cast, Third Person’s convoluted plots and overblown dialogue can easily be forgotten—but duping the audience with an unsatisfactory ending and an arbitrary connection between the characters is a lot harder to forgive.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.
Director: Paul Haggis
Writer: Paul Haggis
Starring: Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, James Franco, Moran Atias, Loan Chabanol, Maria Bello, Kim Basinger
Release Date: June 20, 2014 (limited, Los Angeles and New York)