Third Person Written and directed by Paul Haggis; with Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, James Franco, Adrien Brody, Moran Atias, Kim Basinger, Maria Bello
American movies often portray artists and the creative process in a childish way. I am referring not to biopics of real-life artists – although it can be true of them, too – but to features about fictional artists. In most movies of this type, we are asked to believe that the artist-hero is talented, even though whatever glimpse we get of his or her supposed art is usually quite laughable. Moreover, the ideas these fictional characters have about what art is and how it is created stem from a romantic conception that has little to do with reality. Whether these artists are successful or struggling – and artists in crisis are certainly a popular topic – they tend to be completely unbelievable.
All this is true of Paul Haggis’ new movie, “Third Person,” which features two artist characters. One (James Franco), a minor figure in the movie, is supposed to be an acclaimed painter. His works, when we get to see them, turn out to be the most banal and outdated form of abstract art, created in the kind of passionate frenzy that – or so we are supposed to believe – is how “real” artists work.
The second (Liam Neeson), one of the film’s protagonists, is a writer, a former Pulitzer Prize winner grappling with a personal and professional crisis. But the movie’s attempts to show us what he once had, and has seemingly lost, does little to convince us that he ever deserved the prize or acclaim. When he speaks out about art and creativity, all he manages to spout are clichés.
Paul Haggis is something of a mystery to me. On the one hand, he is a productive screenwriter whose writing career reached its apex in 2004 when he penned “Million Dollar Baby,” Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning boxing movie. A year later, Haggis’ multistranded “Crash,” which he both wrote and directed, won a Best Picture Oscar of its own. To me it seemed a rather superficial film, although it had some powerful scenes and attested to Haggis’ efficiency as a screenwriter (indeed, he won another Academy Award for the “Crash” screenplay, but not for his direction).
I came to expect more from him after he wrote and directed the 2007 drama “In the Valley of Elah,” one of the best films made about the impact of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan on American society. Then my expectations plummeted again after his 2010 thriller “The Next Three Days,” a run-of-the-mill movie with a far-fetched plot.
Now, in “Third Person,” Haggis returns to the pretensions of “Crash” and once again offers us a movie that tracks several converging storylines. But where the stories in “Crash” were connected by a common social theme – American society’s racism and class structure – in “Third Person” Haggis wants the connecting theme to be existential. And – how can one put this gently? – he is out of his league.
The three intertwining stories of “Third Person” are set in three different cities. In New York we have Julia (Mila Kunis), who, with the help of her lawyer (Maria Bello) – a character who is supposed to have some kind of symbolic importance, only Haggis seems to have forgotten what it was – is fighting for custody of her young son, who has been living with his artist father since she was accused of hurting the boy.
In Rome, meanwhile, there is Scott (Adrien Brody), who makes a living ripping off the work of top couture designers. While at a bar, he meets Monika (Moran Atias), a Romanian gypsy with stormy mannerisms and clothes so colorful they make your head hurt – because that’s just how gypsies look and behave, right? She is carrying a large sum of money in order to free her kidnapped 8-year-old daughter.
The third story, set in Paris, is that of the writer, Michael (Neeson), who has separated from his wife (Kim Basinger) following a tragedy and is having an affair with Anna (Olivia Wilde), a journalist who has literary ambitions of her own.
The three stories have themes in common, mainly the struggle to deal with loss. Unfortunately, they are all rather mediocre and fail to evoke real interest or emotion. The New York story is colorless, the Roman one implausible; and the central narrative, that of the writer and his lover, is some kind of tedious fantasy about a tempestuous affair that threatens to become yet another last tango in Paris.
All of these limitations might have been manageable if the movie had not had more “lofty” ambitions, which are revealed when the tales begin to intertwine. I won’t say how, because that’s supposed to be a surprise. But not only does the combined result have only a superficial message to convey, it is executed in such a clumsy way that, until we figure out what’s going on, the screenplay seems to have some serious continuity problems.
The cast does as well as it can under the circumstances. Neeson is determined, Wilde passionate, Kunis gloomy, Brody excited, Atias energetic, and so on. Each of them tries to steer the movie toward the tone Haggis has chosen for his or her character, but it doesn’t work, and the resulting tapestry is inelegant and interrupted. If this tapestry is supposed to represent some kind of creative process, then it is the kind that stands for artistic bankruptcy.