Expect less—way less—from Haggis’s “Third Person,” and you’ll probably have a better time watching this ambitious misfire.
By Dania Syed on June 20, 2014

“Third Person” is written and directed by Paul Haggis (“Crash,” 2005) and stars an ensemble cast that includes Kim Basinger (“LA Confidential,” 1997), Liam Neeson (“The Grey,” 2012), Mila Kunis (“Black Swan,” 2010), Olivia Wilde (“Tron: Legacy,” 2014), and Adrien Brody (“Predators,” 2010). Haggis’s narrative chronicles the lives of multiple characters within three primary entwined stories across three different parts of the world. 

Neeson plays Michael, an award-winning novelist who has recently left his wife Elaine (Basinger). Now cocooned in a hotel suite in Paris, he’s trying to finish his latest book while juggling a complex situation-ship with ambitious writer Anna (Wilde). Elsewhere, in Rome, shady businessman Scott (Brody) meets Italian gypsy Monika (Moran Atias; “La Terza Madre;” Eng. Title: “Mother of Tears,” 2008). When he learns her 8-year-old daughter is being held for ransom, he’s compelled to help her. As a result, he finds himself embedded in a sinister web of con artists and the mafia while trying to understand the truth behind her predicament. 

Back in New York, Julia (Kunis) struggles to make ends meet after losing custody of her 6-year-old son for being accused of trying to kill him—a charge she vehemently denies. Her ex-husband Rick (James Franco; “127 Hours,” 2010) is doing everything he can to keep their son away from her. Julia’s lawyer Theresa (Maria Bello; “Prisoners,” 2013), desperately battles to restore her right to see her son again, while Rick’s current girlfriend, Sam (Loan Chabanol; “Fading Gigolo,” 2014), is the sympathetic onlooker who’s stuck in the middle of the two opposing sides.

Love, trust, and forgiveness are the center of this film, with the shadow of the auxiliary third person being the titular linchpin of Haggis’s intricately woven hierarchy of stories. In theory, this is a fantastic USP for the Academy Award-winning writer-director’s latest. For better or worse, the critical and commercial success of “Crash” (2005) allows him the reputation for creating a neatly interwoven multi-plotline film. Bearing this in mind—besides the stacked cast of actors—one can’t be blamed for going in with high expectations. Sadly, the less you expect from “Third Person,” the better off you’ll be watching what’s otherwise an emotionally compelling film—for most of its duration, anyway.

Third Person
“So uh… how do you feel being in another movie about an older writer, Olivia?” // (L-R) Olivia Wilde and Liam Neeson in a still from Paul Haggis’s Third Person, a Sony Pictures Classics film.

At 137 minutes, the film surprisingly feels a touch longer than it’s supposed to be. Not that it’s a drag by any means—there’s an appeal to Haggis’s free-flowing narrative that moves from story to story, with a compelling effort to blur the lines—but with multiple plots comes the risk of inconsistent pacing. Throw in the archetypal writing of the Scott-Monica thread, and you’re strapped in for a bumpy ride, which can often grab your attention and move you with its few incredibly surrealist turns, but on the other hand, is often predictable to the point most will probably have almost all of it figured out by halftime, well before the climax.

For what it’s worth, “Third Person” is easy on the eyes. Cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli (“Venuto Al Mondo;” Eng. Title: “Twice Born,” 2013) delivers on the emotional intimacy of the film’s characters with pitch-perfect framing, and his work is complemented by editor Jo Francis (“The Next Three Days,” 2010), whose pristinely timed cuts capitalize on Corticelli’s visual storytelling prowess, and—if only sometimes—end up perfectly dialing up the emotional intensity of a scene.

The burden ultimately rests on the shoulders of its cast—particularly Neeson and Kunis—who carry the weight of the film’s inconsistency. It’s refreshing to see Neeson step away from the action scene and reinforce his dramatic talent through his performance here. His booming voice and the authority with which he adds character to his roles is always a surefire win. Kunis, for her part, is stunning in her performance of a woman desperately trying to hold her life’s constantly imploding walls together, especially in her story’s final act. Of the supporting cast, Wilde is excellent in her role as Neeson’s emotionally gutted and cocky love interest. Franco and Atias are fantastic, while Brody—whose Scott starts with promise—falls back into a painfully static performance, thanks to how his character’s written.

It’s a shame that an otherwise decently crafted film with an excellent cast and some surprisingly engrossing movie moments feels all over the place. Where Haggis went wrong with “Third Person,” I cannot put my finger on. Is it a failure? Maybe. But for all intents and purposes, it’s a glorious, ambitious misfire—and worth it if you’re seeking offbeat fare.