Writers' Workshop: Paul Haggis' Third Person is a baffling rough-draft epic

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James Franco and Olivia Wilde in Third Person
James Franco and Olivia Wilde in Third Person Maria Marin - © 2014 - Sony Pictures Classics

Writers' Workshop: Paul Haggis' Third Person is a baffling rough-draft epic

Third Person
Written and directed by Paul Haggis.
Starring Liam Neeson, Adrien Brody, Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, James Franco, Moran Atias, Maria Bello and Kim Basinger.
Opens Friday, July 11, at the Tivoli.

If a toddler tried to re-create the mystifying behavior of adults, it would look a lot like Paul Haggis' Third Person, a drama where grown-ups scream and cry and kiss for reasons that are confounding even to those who understand speech. The film follows a handful of couples, or really, kinda-sorta couples, who treat each other terribly, and then in the next scene are confused and stricken by their actions as though they're pawns under the thumb of a cruel chess master.

Which, of course, Haggis is. His Oscar–winning puzzle-piece epic, Crash, turned narrative coherence into a game that wasn't much fun to play. Here, we have a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist (Liam Neeson) typing away in Paris while torturing, and being tortured by, an unhinged reporter (Olivia Wilde) with ambitions of writing fiction and stealing him away from his wife (Kim Basinger). Meanwhile in Italy, a spy for copycat suit designers (Adrien Brody) gets tangled in a curvaceous Romanian prostitute's (Moran Atias) desperate attempt to buy back her daughter from a violent smuggler. Across the pond in New York, a soap-star-turned-hotel-maid (Mila Kunis) must prove to her ex-husband (James Franco) and her lawyer (Maria Bello) that she deserves to see her son despite that time a year ago he nearly died under her care.

The three plotlines fit together in a twist that isn't so much an "aha!" as an "argh!" As the pieces snap into place, our first guess is that Third Person is about loss, as the characters all long for someone who either is dead or hates them. Our second guess is that Haggis is exploring insanity. Anna has flown to Paris to give Michael a draft of her latest short story. She's conflicted about the relationship, which Haggis telegraphs by asking Wilde to stride down the hallway toward Michael's hotel room grinning and then abruptly frown. Anna doesn't just run hot and cold, she runs volcanic and arctic. She first threatens to fly home, then she and Michael have sex with the door open, then she rages that she can't be seen walking to his room, and then she walks back to it anyway, naked under a bathrobe that she hands him before scampering bare-assed down a flight of stairs.

In the real world, she'd be committed. In Third Person's world, she's commonplace. This is, after all, a movie in which Brody's traveling businessman offers his own hotel room to a hooker he just met who loathes him, and then, when she refuses to take it, decides to sleep next to her at the train station. We're not convinced he or anyone else is even capable of feeding themselves. Everyone's inner compass is so broken that we, too, change course: When crazy is normal, forgive the characters and blame their creator.

Eventually, we realize that the oddities of the script — say, Kunis' character turning up to clean hotel rooms in both Manhattan and France — aren't just sloppy mistakes, but details that at the film's end might suddenly have a point. Yet what should alarm the writer-director is that for most of the running time it's a struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt. When the head-scratching impossibilities are more irritating than intriguing, does the last-second explanation outweigh the two hours we've spent rolling our eyes? Does it matter that you complete a Hail Mary pass if the crowd has already decamped to the parking lot?

Haggis' straightforward screenplays for Casino Royale and In the Valley of Elah prove he's smartest when he doesn't try to prove he's clever. To make things worse, in he Third Person falls into the trap of writing about a writer — a self-lauding groan that Candace Bushnell ran into the ground with Sex and the City — whose wordsmithing abilities are described as brilliant while the words we actually hear are dreck. Later, Neeson's Michael is accused of penning fiction that justifies his own faults and delusions, a charge it's hard not to extend to Haggis himself.

By inviting the audience into his brain, Haggis is gambling dangerously on his own image. A writer doesn't just reveal himself in the broad strokes, penning romances that wade hip-deep into masochism; he also reveals himself in the throwaway details, like Third Person's insistence that all Italian people are assholes and idiots. As a director, Haggis doesn't seem to think audiences are much smarter. He shoots close-ups of obvious things he doesn't trust us to notice: a vial of pills, a tumbler of booze, Wilde's ass and Atias' boobs. His cast is terrific, but it's embarrassing to watch them embrace Haggis' screaming nonsense, like walking in on Laurence Olivier in the bathroom — they can seem diminished. Haggis' Oscar aside, why did they sign on to this endurance test? Answers Brody's character while being threatened with a frying pan, "Do we always know why we do things?"

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