The Paul Haggis drama Third Person, like his Oscar-winning Crash, is a series of interlocking stories. Each is fascinating, or at least interesting its own right. Each is cast with more than capable actors.
Like Crash, the conceit that ties those tales together is a bit obvious. And like Crash, it rambles on and on, unable or unwilling to develop an exit strategy. His all-star cast has to get its money’s worth, even at the expense of the audience’s patience.
Liam Neeson is Michael, a married writer visiting Paris as a cure for writer’s block, trying to carry on an affair with a would-be novelist, Anna (Olivia Wilde). When he gets the call from the front desk announcing she’s shown up, he puts us on our guard.
“Does she appear to be … armed?”
Wilde is cast on-the-nose as a scary-sexy, insulting and mercurial careerist possibly using this “old man” to further her aims. Anna toys with Michael, turns him on and turns on him and never lets on which Anna he’s going to be dealing with in a given scene. Meanwhile, he is fielding calls from a sad, knowing wife (Oscar winner Kim Basinger) back home.
In Rome, Oscar winner Adrien Brody is shady Sean, a fashion espionage agent (he steals designs) and an ugly American — the sort of arrogant jerk who doesn’t fall for Italy’s charms. He expects everybody to speak English and serve cold Budweiser.
“Bar Americain, and you don’t speak English,” he sniffs to a bartender too obsessed with soccer to be bothered with him. “You understand the term ‘irony’?”
By chance, he runs into a beautiful Gypsy (Moran Atias) and becomes tangled up in her melodrama. He’s a hustler who wonders, at every turn, if he’s being hustled by an expert.
Mila Kunis is Julia, a broke New Yorker who can only find work as a hotel maid, whose life has been wrecked by an accusation of child neglect/abuse. Maria Bello is her irritated lawyer, the one whose appointments Julia keeps missing. James Franco, an artist who paints without a brush and who lives with a stunning Frenchwoman (Loan Chabanol), is mixed up in it.
The Neeson-Wilde scenes have a playful, dangerous and sexual edge, thanks largely to Wilde’s fearlessness and cocksure comic sensibilities and Neeson’s deadpan reactions to her.
Sean, bouncing all over Italy with a woman he seems to both lust after and pity in a succession of different generations of Fiats she apparently steals, is all those things that Brody does best — aloof and cool, a little macho and very sarcastic.
I love the way he refuses to meet Italy on its own terms, even when Sean runs into that rare Italian who isn’t a coward, a bigot or a criminal. Do Sean a favor and it’s “Spasiba.” He thanks you in Russian, just to irk you.
The Kunis/Bello/Franco tale is the most melodramatic and least satisfying, but even it has a nice payoff.
Haggis lets us get way ahead of the characters and figure out what the title of this writerly tale — Third Person — has to do with the sometimes illogical connections between stories. That’s not a problem. Dragging out the tales after he reaches a logical climax and something close to a resolution with each, that is.
A generous whittling down and he might have had something special, from sad story to giddy one with a sad edge, a hustle with pathos and romance intercut with the consequences of infidelity.
But Third Person, despite its rewards, wears out its welcome long before the third act is through.
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