I don’t like this movie. I don’t like how it walks, talks, struts and sells itself. I find it contrived, tortured, humorless, infuriating and interminable. And yet if you care anything about film and the creative drive that still exists in the people who make them, then Third Person needs to be seen. Even if it’s just to argue about it. Paul Haggis who wrote and directed Third Person, isn’t dead inside like the hacks who work consistently in Hollywood. This Canadian maverick and rogue Scientologist pisses people off. The Haggis haters came out in force when his 2005 Crash won the Best Picture Oscar instead of Brokeback Mountain. Haggis has done fine work as a screenwriter, especially for director Clint Eastwood with Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima. He showed real chops as a director with In the Valley of Elah and the aforementioned Crash. But even working the James Bond franchise, Haggis’ screenwriting can swerve from dandy (Casino Royale) to dreary (Quantum of Solace). His last time up as writer and director, in 2010’s Russell Crowe, prison-break thriller The Next Three Days, was a botch job. I don’t care how many reviewers read the movie as a metaphor for his break from Scientology.
So why do I care about Third Person, especially when it damn-near drove me up the wall? Because its theme – the struggle of creation – is actually something worth grappling with. Haggis starts on strong ground with Michael (Liam Neeson), a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist fighting writer’s block in a chic hotel room in Paris. Instead of room service, Michael sends in for Anna (Olivia Wilde), a younger writer he’s been boffing since he left his wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger). Neeson gives Michael a caged-animal vitality. And Wilde is just stunning as the willful creature he exploits for sex and dialogue he can steal for his book.
And then, because he can, Haggis begins piling on subplots. In Rome, Scott (Adrien Brody) makes a living stealing ideas from fashion houses. But when Scott meets Monika (Moran Atias) in a bar, he goes against his every instinct as a selfish prick to help Monika ransom her daughter back from Romanian kidnappers. In New York, Julia (Mila Kunis) works as a hotel maid to finance a custody battle with her ex-husband Rick (James Franco), an artist who can’t get over an incident of Julia’s child neglect, no matter how hard her lawyer, Theresa (Maria Bello), makes a case.
Other than Neeson and Wilde, both excellent, the actors are buried in an avalanche of plot overload. Do all these story strands, involving broken relationships and lost children, interlock? Sadly, they do, and in ways that range from daft to demented. Am I being literal-minded to expect an investment of 136 minutes of screen time to add up to more than a pseudo-intellectual tease? Haggis’ ambition is admirable, especially without the cushion of ironic detachment. But what’s on screen is a meandering mess, more satisfying to dissect in retrospect than to live with in the moment.