Published Jan 29, 2015Paul Haggis is the sort of guy you hire to write a screenplay when you have a basic shell and marketing strategy already in place. He has a strong understanding of narrative structure and dramatic irony, creating a serviceable template for other, more talented, filmmakers to leverage and explore. What he's not great at is writing characters that aren't mired in hackneyed cliché or telling a story that can't be summarized thematically in a five-word caption. When he tries to tell a story of his own (or rather, a story characterized by extremely broad socio-political observations, such as Crash and In the Valley of Elah), it tends to be unintentionally funny in its ham-fistedness and overly convenient way of blandly reiterating the status quo.
This is why his attempt to make an art film like Third Person has a highway accident appeal. Since he's never had anything of substance to say in his career thus far — save a couple of kick-ass Facts of Life episodes with super-great life lessons — what could he possibly say when emulating the likes of Antonioni? The answer: Nothing.
Initially, it presents much like Crash, with the focus bouncing around between a handful of storylines. Michael (Liam Neeson), a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, is cooped up in a Parisian hotel having sex with Anna (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring writer young enough to be his daughter. Julia (Mila Kunis), a perpetual fuck-up with an inability to be on time for appointments with her lawyer (Maria Bello), is in a custody battle with her artist ex (James Franco). And Scott (Adrien Brody) awkwardly attempts to pick up a mysterious gypsy (Moran Atias) in a shitty Roman bar.
Each story overtly hints at parental self-criticism or angst, whether it is the suggestion of neglect, abuse or the inkling of a child left behind in a far off place. And since Haggis quickly injects fantastical elements — Kunis is a maid in New York but she's cleaning the hotel room of Michael in Paris — it's clear that the stories are meant to complement each other and act as some sort of metaphor or bigger picture concept.
This attempt to create a slightly fragmented, subtly dreamlike narrative is admirable. Often, (male) filmmakers ignore the emotional component of filmmaking and the power of audience intuition and attachment or approach it with a dreadfully literal heavy hand. But, despite his attempts to say something meaningful about relationships, loss and our tendency to be self-serving, Third Person comes off as very cold and very clumsy.
The main problem is basic characterization and storytelling. Every single character is a broad archetype without any nuance beyond ubiquitous mysteriousness. Scott is a horny sleaze ball, just as Julia is a scattered screw-up, just as Anna projects false bravado and has daddy issues; they're all stereotypes. And Haggis's rather indulgent approach to storytelling doesn't allow any of the actors to take things beyond rote archetype, leaving them to bounce around their middling, predictable and altogether groan-inducing individual narratives.
Though the "daddy issues" repetitive mind games template of the Anna and Michael storyline is derivative and bad enough, it's the Scott storyline that really aggravates and induces the most eye-rolls. After he meets the sexy gypsy, she conveniently loses a large sum of money that she needs to get her daughter back from a mostly generic and undefined baddie. Is she scamming him or does she actually have a daughter in trouble? Does anyone care?
Since these different tales are all so redundant and overdone, there's almost a sense that Haggis is actually commenting on the nature of the film's namesake, playing with the artificiality of a third person narrative and exploiting audience expectation to subvert our intuition. But, just as quickly as this potentially intriguing template arises it rapidly dissipates with the realization that these stories really are just a summation of their superficial elements, leaving only some fluff about how writers work out their inner demons to take home.
It's singularly male, and devoid of the emotional power it tries to ignite. And Haggis, whose Q&A and commentary track included on the Blu-ray are as smug as they are defensive, would likely just find a flippant way to refute this assertion and claim that the audience just didn't get it.