Complex and Confounding

Paul Haggis might make a truly great movie someday, but Third Person’s not it

It’s been 10 years since writer-director Paul Haggis, quite surprisingly, won some Oscars for his Crash, a very good but perhaps overrated movie. That film had a bunch of storylines weaving together, and gave some good actors decent showcases. It also seemed to be setting the stage for a promising directorial career.

Haggis is yet to capitalize on his Oscar triumph. He’s made a very good movie that nobody saw in the U.S. (the Tommy Lee Jones starrer In the Valley of Elah) and a so-so, tepid thriller (Russell Crowe in The Next Three Days) since then, but he’s generally fallen off the radar.

His latest, the ambitious Third Person, probably won’t do much to change that. It’s a respectable but divisive effort that will confound a lot of viewers the way Cameron Crowe’s complex and unjustly maligned Vanilla Sky did. It tries to do a lot, and it doesn’t succeed on all fronts. Some will see it as a train wreck, wherein I see it as a flawed but reputable effort.

What we get is a puzzle movie with Michael (Liam Neeson), a struggling Pulitzer Prize winning author, as its centerpiece. The once prolific author can’t get on track with his latest novel as he struggles to produce words in a Paris hotel. His tempestuous lover Anna (Olivia Wilde) comes to visit. The two have a strange, sadomasochistic relationship that will be explained later on. The reasons are a bit preposterous, but they make sense in context.

With the story of Michael and Anna, we get some connected characters that I won’t reveal because they are part of the mystery puzzle. The film also gives us two other major plot threads, one involving Adrien Brody as Scott, some sort of fashion spy in Italy, getting involved in bad things with a troubled woman (Moran Atias). This plot thread proves to be the film’s least interesting, although Brody is quite good in his role.

The final thread involves Julia (Mila Kunis), a disgraced former soap opera star being barred from seeing her son. She’s accused of trying to harm him, and Rick (James Franco) the boy’s finger-painting father (yes, he’s a professional finger painter) believes she is guilty.

The locations change, in a somewhat confusing manner, between Paris, New York and Rome, with all of the characters connecting through some sense of unexplained misery or loss. The film clocks in at 137 minutes, and I confess, it frustrates at times because it takes its sweet time revealing its ultimate purpose. But that revelation is a clever one that works OK enough. I’m not going to say it ties the film together perfectly, but it does result in enough clarity to make it qualify as a decent twist.

Kunis, an actress who ranges from absolutely terrible to pretty damned good in almost all of her performances, leans toward her better tendencies in this film. Yes, there are moments where she delivers a line or two as if she has no sense of what the line is supposed to do. Conversely, she has moments, including her final big scene, where she is absolute dynamite.

After her endearing work in Drinking Buddies, Wilde is continuing to show she’s an actress of exceptional power. Her Anna is her most complex character yet, alternately mean and vulnerable, completely unpredictable.

Neeson gets to take off his guns for a film, and he reminds that he knows his way around a good drama. Michael is a seemingly good man, but he has some ruthless bastard capabilities, with Neeson being astute at showing both sides of the coin. Franco, who is in every other movie being released this summer, delivers his most realized, sturdy work in years as a man struggling with his sense of obligation to his child and an unstable former lover.

There’s enough solid acting for two films to go with the sporadic kookiness in Third Person, a film that winds up getting a mild recommendation. I think Haggis has yet to deliver his best film, and he’ll be able to deliver it once he calms down a bit.

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