Third Person (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

thirdperson sqBeyond this, Third Person is one of those movies that’s bad to the point that it makes you dislike actors you usually like, and makes you question why you like them.

 

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Paul Haggis shot to superstardom, or as much as a screenwriter really can, anyway, when Million Dollar Baby and Crash won back-to-back Best Picture Oscars, both of which he wrote, and the latter of which he directed as well. Since Crash he’s somewhat disappeared from the spotlight, or so it seems until you remember that he was nominated for a screenplay Oscar for the third time (for Letters from Iwo Jima) and wrote some Bond movies. Maybe it’s just the films he directed that people haven’t paid attention to, as neither his 2007 film In the Valley of Elah nor 2010’s The Next Three Days seem to be remembered by the general population.

That isn’t going to change with Third Person, which is probably the worst thing he’s ever been involved in. It takes the worst of what’s defined Haggis’ touch in the past—heavy-handedness, blindingly lazy contrivances of plot—couples them with a slew of actors I mostly actually like (James Franco, Adrien Brody, Mila Kunis, Maria Bello), and makes a pretentious mess of all of the elements.

At first Third Person feels not unlike something like Crash, where there are a lot of characters and storylines set up in the beginning, and it isn’t terribly clear if and how they’re going to come together. The thread that gets the most time concerns the famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael (Liam Neeson), who is sleeping with fledging writer Anna (Olivia Wilde). Elsewhere we have down-on-her-luck Julia (Kunis), an actress who’s settling into a job as a housekeeper at a hotel, if only so that she can look like she’s trying hard to make a life for herself when she has to appear in court in a custody battle over her young son. That boy’s father is Rick (Franco), a famous artist, who is trying to move on from something horrible that Julia was presumably responsible for. Moving on, we have Scott (Brody) in Italy, who meets and becomes infatuated with the also-troubled Monika (Moran Atias), who is also trying to regain custody of her child, albeit in a different way from what Julia’s up to. Beyond all of this, we see Kim Basinger turn up as Michael’s ex-wife, Bello as Julia’s lawyer, and countless other men in positions of power and women who are set up to seem to need rescuing.

And how this film treats its women! You’d think this was a Michael Bay movie. Where the contrivances in Crash were mostly used to bring disparate characters together under dramatic circumstances, here they’re used in the service of having Olivia Wilde run around half- or fully-naked, looking for a questionable old man to have sex with. Bello’s strong lawyer character likes to go swimming, the symbolism to which is overshadowed by how often Haggis likes to show his pretty female lawyer in a bathing suit. Kunis has to change clothes in the back of a cab, which fact is dwelled on as if it were a major plot point. You get the idea.

Beyond this, Third Person is one of those movies that’s bad to the point that it makes you dislike actors you usually like, and makes you question why you like them. This is among the worst work I’ve ever seen Franco and Kunis do (and though I like them both individually, it seems to be trouble when they’re together—see Date Night or Oz the Great and Powerful), and of the main cast only really Brody saves any kind of face here, but just barely; it’s more a matter that he’s less bad than everyone else.

That is to say, I don’t see Third Person returning Haggis to the superstardom he held for a good year or two there. If anything, it will likely alienate the few devoted fans he has left at this point. It’s a shame, because he really can be a talented writer; he just needs a producer who will reign him in when necessary, and his successes a decade ago apparently has made that kind of producer a rarity in his circle. | Pete Timmermann

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