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Friday, December 19, 2014, 10:33 a.m.
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Review

Third Person

By Philip Martin

This article was published August 22, 2014 at 2:41 a.m.

Third Person

83 Cast: Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, Mila Kunis, Moran Atias, James Franco, Kim Basinger, Maria Bello

Director: Paul Haggis

Rating: R, for language and some sexuality/nudity

Running time: 137 minutes

Liam Neeson's Michael has a particular set of skills in Paul Haggis' Third Person; he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist with the power to fly his neurotic mistress, Anna (Olivia Wilde), to Paris from New York using only his frequent-flier miles. (Anyone who has ever tried to navigate an airline's gnostic rewards redemption system ought to appreciate how special this makes him.)

He's also depressed, and blocked, struggling to finish his novel. So he needs Anna, who is his protege and competitor as well as his muse, to shake him out of his boredom. Immediately the two start to repeat what is apparently a pattern with them, a cruel passive-aggressive game that seems as freighted with Oedipal/Electra drama as sexual tension. At times it feels as though Anna is the bright young thing toying with the exhausted old fraud -- that what she really wants out of the relationship is a little literary credibility. And Michael is self-aware enough to understand this.

Meanwhile, in Rome, there's furtive American Scott (Adrien Brody), involved in corporate espionage, who's about to get caught up in the life of desperate Romanian Monika (Israeli actress Moran Atias), who's in the country illegally. Monika's daughter is being held for ransom by the evil Marco (Riccardo Scamarcio), a kind of gypsy gangster who keeps moving the goalposts on her. Scott, himself a dirty little sneak, is alert from the very beginning that Monika and Marco might be playing him for a fool, but maybe he just wants to believe in this beautiful stranger. Maybe, a la Sydney Carton, he just wants to do one thing in his life that isn't a compromised half-measure.

Spin the globe and drop in on Manhattan, where former TV soap actress Julia (Mila Kunis) seems powerless to keep her life from falling apart. She has lost custody of her son (Oliver Crouch) after a misadventure with a dry cleaning bag, and her understandably angry ex-husband (James Franco, in a relatively small and refreshingly volatile role), a rich and famous artist, has cut her off financially. Nearly homeless, she's struggling with keeping her cell phone charged, which -- with important court dates looming -- ought to be a higher priority than she's able to make it.

So what connects all these stories? Writer-director Haggis drops a few clues -- some subtle, some not so much -- through Third Person's rather exorbitant running time. It's probably not much of a spoiler to say that although Neeson's character has a Pulitzer, he's also a hack. (And here an unkind critic might remind you that Haggis has an Oscar.) We can also safely point out that several of the characters here are failed parents and spouses, and that a note scribbled in a hotel room seems to magically transport itself from Manhattan to Paris.

This is to say that you may find Third Person confusing and difficult to sort out. (I did. I'll confess that before writing this review I went to themoviespoiler.com site to see what they had made of it. No one has posted a synopsis of the film there yet.) If that matters an awful lot to you, then you will likely hate this movie and curse Haggis for wasting more than two hours of your life with this shaggy dog story.

On the other hand, I must admit that I stuck with the movie for an awfully long time; I enjoyed the performances and believe that if it were just a little less tricky and a lot less self-serious it might have been a genuinely great film. Everybody's pretty good in it; and for all the third act reveals, the ways the characters relate to one another feels very real. The editing is sharp and gains momentum toward the end -- the cuts are quicker as the resonances between the stories accumulate. What's really impressive about Haggis' film is its unabashed ambition -- which makes it a convenient target for literal-minded critics.

While we probably shouldn't hold Haggis' strivings against him, it's fair to note his execution isn't flawless. Any one of the three stories could have supported a movie -- the need to pile up characters in a Crash-like roundelay feels vaguely self-aggrandizing. Universal truths can be rooted in specific stories; we don't need superfluous examples. As taken as I was with the first three quarters of the movie, by the end I felt like throwing something at the screen.

Or rather, at the tiny man behind the screen: Haggis, the great and terrible.

MovieStyle on 08/22/2014

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