Third Person is an odd beast of a film. It awkwardly tries to tell three different stories of love, romance and loss – none of which seem, at least on the surface, connected in any way. The characters can sometimes feel paper-thin and poorly-written, and their motivations are murky at best. But, stick with it all the way to the end, and you’ll find that writer-director Paul Haggis’ premise is a twisted and very ambitious one. It’s almost reason enough to excuse the fact that the film he’s created out of it isn’t actually all that good.
We open on Michael (Neeson), a tortured, prize-winning novelist who’s holed himself up in a hotel in Paris to write his latest book. There, he meets his mistress Anna (Wilde), a bright, feisty woman with aspirations to write and a deep secret of her own, even as he chats with his estranged wife Elaine (Kim Basinger) on the phone. Cut to Rome, where Scott (Brody) takes a break from trading in top-secret fashion designs to get embroiled in the life and troubles of Monika (Atias), a woman trying to buy her young daughter back from a smuggler. Meanwhile, in New York, Julia (Kunis) struggles to keep herself together in her bitter custody battle with ex-husband Rick (Franco). All she wants is to see their son again, but events keep conspiring against her every attempt to prove herself worthy of visitation rights.
There’s no denying that Haggis’ fundamental concept for Third Person is fascinating. It’s layered with rich ideas – the genesis of inspiration, the power of creation, the themes of loss, lies and love, and what it means to really trust someone – and its narrative twist even accounts for some of the cardboard-stiff dialogue that emerges from the mouths of Haggis’ characters. Speaking of which, the twist, which an astute viewer should be able to figure out at some point during the film, actually becomes more audacious in the final few moments – when secrets unravel, and it becomes clear just what kind of person Michael really is.
But what’s so very frustrating about Third Person is that it never really lives up to its potential. Sure, its premise and characters can be picked over for ages: what is real, and what’s imaginary? Did this character actually say that? What is the significance of that character? – and so on. But would anyone who has sat through the entire film really want to? For the most part, Third Person unspools like a tedious melodrama, with Haggis’ generally quite accomplished cast (surprising MVP: Kunis) speaking in odd, weighty language that would not feel out of place in a soap opera. The characters all struggle to feel real, with Anna in particular flitting between emotional extremes in a most wearying manner. That might be Haggis’ point – but it’s hammered home in so joyless a fashion that it’s hard to care too much, after a while.
Ultimately, Haggis’ high concept proves to be the film’s bright spot – and also its undoing. He has to juggle so furiously to keep all his balls in the air that he perhaps fails to realise that his three stories only become genuinely interesting in retrospect – which is a criminal waste of his audiences’ interest and affections. He also doesn’t really go as far with his concept as he could have done, although that might – arguably – be because he wants to allow his viewers the chance to finish the story for themselves. Whatever the case may be, Third Person languishes when it should race, and loses itself in the intriguing knots of its own premise.
Summary: Interesting premise undone by its execution – shouldn’t the final film be more scintillating than this?
RATING: 2 out of 5 stars