In 2004, a writer-director named Paul Haggis took Hollywood by surprise when he released the movie “Crash,” a highly charged take on racial relations in Los Angeles that went on to win the Best Picture Oscar and place him near the top of the industry’s hottest directors. Interweaving the travails of numerous Angelenos of every race and gender as they fell into one culture clash after another, that movie had a visceral impact on moviegoers and critics.
The beauty of the movie, and why it landed so strongly at the time with viewers, was that it took examples of our worst behavioral impulses – the anger and biases that lurk secretly in the hearts of almost everyone – and put them front and center as a way of forcing people to see and change their behavior.
But has it held up? Looking back from a decade later, many of its argumentative scenes come off as shrill and over-the-top. Rather than feeling the zeitgeist, they make viewers realize “Wait a minute, even in LA, people aren’t just randomly screaming at other races on a daily basis.”
Haggis has made some good movies since, with the stark anti-war drama “In the Valley of Elah” and the superb yet sadly overlooked “The Next Three Days,” but none have connected with a mass audience. Add in the profound life changes he surely has undergone since boldly and publicly leaving Scientology in the past couple of years, and it’s no wonder that the filmmaker might want to return to the kind of film that earned him a gold statue.
And so it is that Haggis’ latest film, “Third Person,” assembles an incredible cast to take on a series of interweaving tales set in Paris and Italy. Yet despite the fact that there is plenty of high emotion to be found at moments in the film, overall it’s a strangely muted and slow-paced pastiche of sadness surrounding three couples who are each battling over a lost child.
The movie focuses foremost on Michael (Liam Neeson), a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author living in a Paris hotel suite while finishing his latest book. After leaving his wife Elaine (Kim Basinger), he is having a wild affair with Anna (Olivia Wilde), a young journalist who wants to write and publish fiction.
Meanwhile, Scott (Adrien Brody) is a shady American businessman visiting Italy in order to steal designs from fashion houses. He meets a mysterious woman named Monika (Moran Atias) in a bar and finds that she is about to be reunited with her young daughter until the money she has saved to pay a smuggler to bring her to Italy is stolen. Scott feels compelled to help her, and travels to Southern Italy with her only to find that he might be getting conned by her and others.
The third story follows Julia (Mila Kunis), a former soap opera actress who is caught in a custody battle for her six year old son with her husband Rick (James Franco), a New York artist. Depleted of funds and desperate for a job, she becomes a hotel maid in the same bar that she once stayed in as a star, while her lawyer (Maria Bello) tries to get her one last chance to win her child back.
These three stories may each sound interesting, and the performances (especially by Kunis and Franco) are generally terrific, but Haggis has so many darkly lit rooms and confusing ways of bringing the characters together that the entire movie becomes a ball of confusion by the end. It appears that characters who are said to be in different cities are in fact in the same ones, and many of the characters come in and out of each other’s lives either through extremely preposterous connections.
The movie is rated R for language, sex and nudity. There’s about 50 uses of bad language and various forms of God’s name in vain, including about 20 F-words with the rest being milder profanities, scattered throughout the film and mostly in short bursts, meaning the language is not a constant barrage on the listener. The two sex scenes have no nudity, but then Michael leaves his mistress standing naked in the hotel hallway outside his room after she shows up wearing only a robe and he tricks her into handing it to him.
She’s left running and laughing through the hotel until she can get back to her own room, with everything showing but her privates. Overall, most adults should be able to handle it easily, and this is hardly a picture that kids or teens would want to watch in the first place.
At the end of the screening I attended, I asked the entire roomful of critics if anyone had any idea what the plot was trying to say by the end. The result was explosive laughter and shared confusion. One other terrible aspect of the movie is its score, which is overwrought with treacly, repetitive piano playing.
It’s all a shame that a fine cast is wasted, as each of them gives their all to their parts in this mess. The first person to blame for “Third Person” is Paul Haggis.
“Third Person” opens at nationwide June 20.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.