In Paul Haggis’ Academy Award-winning movie Crash, a character tells the audience that people in Los Angeles crash into each other just so they can feel something. In Haggis’ latest film, they crash into each other because apparently Haggis can’t think of a new way to structure a movie.
Set in New York, Paris and Rome, Third Person borrows Crash’s setup liberally, using separate stories that will eventually connect as its characters roam around each city, bumping up against love and sex and pain and death. Copying yourself is a lazy way to write, so — not surprisingly — there’s nothing much to recommend about Third Person.
Faring best here is Liam Neeson as Michael, a troubled, Pulitzer Prize-winning author struggling to write his next book in Paris (good work if you can get it). We learn quickly that he’s “a man who can only feel through the characters he creates.” He has an estranged wife back home (Kim Basinger) but is fooling around with an ambitious, budding fiction writer (Olivia Wilde) with whom he shares a tiresome, bantering relationship that defies credulity.
Meanwhile in Italy, Scott (Adrien Brody) also has a wife — or is it an ex? — from whom he seems disconnected. After conducting some shady business in Rome, he stumbles into a bar for a cold beer. No luck there, but he meets an attractive woman (Moran Atias), and after a series of unlikely and suspicious events, learns she’s fighting to get her daughter back from the men delivering her from Romania. Scott gets entangled in her quest, even though it could lose him more than his money.
Lastly, there’s Julia (Mila Kunis), a mess of a human being who has been accused of trying to harm her young son and lost custody of him to her ex (James Franco), a big-shot New York artist. Julia’s attorney (Maria Bello) tells her to focus on being a responsible parent — you know, get a job, show up on time, comb your hair — but Julia operates on the edge of chaos, missing one opportunity after another.
Haggis has lured a mostly good cast to this weak project, and almost everyone here tries gamely to infuse these exhausting scenarios with real passion (notably false is Wilde, though to be fair she’s got one of the worst roles in the movie). But even superb acting can’t cover up the facts that the interlocking story trope is tired, the film is too long and the dialogue makes you cringe (“You love love; it’s people you don’t have time for,” is one of my personal favorites).
The stories come together in the most ludicrous possible way, but the big reveal is telegraphed way too early, and rendered in a silly way when it finally comes. Derivative and self-important, Third Person is a concept and not much more, precisely the sort of film that makes you wonder why anybody would bother to see it at all.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, Olivia Wilde, Maria Bello, James Franco, Kim Basinger, Moran Atias.
Writer/director: Paul Haggis.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 137 minutes. Language, some sexuality and nudity. Playing at: In Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Sunset; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.