In Third Person , the characters are so intentionally mysterious that, oddly, the surfeit of enigma denies them any depth of personality.
Third Person, directed by Paul Haggis. At Kendall Square Cinema.
By Paul Dervis
Paul Haggis is a bright and clever writer/director who gave us one of the best films of 2004. Crash was a multi-layered ‘night on earth’ piece that interwove the stories of complex characters at pivotal moments in their lives. In Third Person, he attempts to go back to that same well — but the result is a tedious, unsatisfying film.
In Crash, the landscapes shared by the characters expanded with each scene, the various segments building to a dynamic conclusion. In Third Person, the characters are so intentionally mysterious that, oddly, the surfeit of enigma denies them any depth of personality. There are three main story lines, each one void of a compelling emotional arc. The absence of substantial characters leaves the viewer having to make sense of a confusing and often shrill tale.
The film follows three relationships: one in New York, another in Rome, and the principle story in a Parisian hotel where Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael is on the skids, shacked up with his mistress Anna. It is hardly a satisfying relationship, given the pair’s sadomasochistic proclivities. It is clear that both these people are damaged, possibly beyond repair, and that they both are nursing secrets that will only be revealed when the film comes to its close. But, given how little emotional investment we have in either Michael or Anna, will we care by then?
Scott is in Rome to steal fashion designs and sell them to cheesy rip-off manufacturers back in the States. He dresses well, belying his very middle-class lifestyle. Waiting for a flight home and having no interest in sightseeing or Italian culture, Scott goes into a joint called American Bar, and like all good Yankees speaks English to the befuddled bartender. In walks the beautiful Monika, frightened and anxious. Turns out a mobster has her child. She needs thousands of Euros to free her or she will spend her young life walking the streets. Scott inexplicably offers to give her some money. But is it a scam? Does she even have a child? Why does he give her his life savings? Again, Haggis waits until the finale to hint at the reason.
In New York, Julia has lost her child to her ex-husband. It appears that, in a moment of frustration, she attempted to harm the boy. Her husband was a famous artist and she gave up her career as an aspiring actress to be a mother. Now she is fighting for visitation rights and losing badly. Did she really try to hurt the boy? Was it an accident?
Are the characters in Third Person real? Or are they all figures dreamed up by Michael, the writer? Are there common threads to these stories? Well, they all deal with loneliness. Even though these people have others fluttering around them, they are alone. Their ability to communicate with others is limited, to say the least. And each and every one of them have issues concerning the bond of parent and child, often with tragic complications.
Haggis has assembled a worthy cast. But most of these strong actors give weak performances. Liam Neeson as Michael, never gets going. It is as if he is waiting to be told by Haggis who this character is. Olivia Wilde as his lover, Anna, is nothing more than a stereotype. Mila Kunis (Julia) gives a finely textured turn, but she has the least amount of screen time among the leads. The most satisfyingly detailed portrait of guilt is handed in by Adrien Brody as Scott. At least his secret has a heartfelt payoff.
The issues in Third Person are potentially profound – among them are the complications that arise after messengers ‘drop the ball.’ But, though Haggis has shown himself capable of handling complexity, this time around he has put much too much simple-minded faith in the power of suggestion.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for hs work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.