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Revolving plots in Third Person

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In 61-year-old writer-director Paul Haggis' THIRD PERSON, an author played by Liam Neeson—who is roughly the same age at Haggis—has a torrid, tortuous affair with a character played by 30-year-old Olivia Wilde. That's the most self-flattering parallel between Haggis and the film's protagonist; the others are more melancholy.

Third Person is about a writer, Michael (Neeson), struggling to overcome a failed marriage and to pen his latest book under the unrelenting pressure bred by past success—a situation Haggis knows well as the divorced director of Crash, his Oscar-winning yet eventually maligned magnum opus.

The premise is self-referential yet earnest and sentimental. Unfortunately, the film's structure is equally self-indulgent, reprising Crash's rotating, tenuously interconnected storylines. While many critics have savaged this storytelling device over the past decade, it can be quite effective when buttressed with intriguing, believable subplots. However, that's not the case here.

Michael, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer, holes up in a Parisian hotel suite to write his novel and cavort with Anna (Wilde), also a struggling writer. Meanwhile, Julia (Mila Kunis) is a former actress and recovering drug addict fighting Rick (James Franco), a famous artist, for visitation rights with their son. The film hints that Julia had been abusive, which distresses her attorney (Maria Bello) as much as her client's penchant for self-destructive behavior.

In Rome, Sean (Adrien Brody), an American clothing-design spy on a pirating mission, falls for Monika (Moran Atias), a beautiful, working-class Romanian whose 8-year-old daughter is being held for ransom by gangsters. Tensions arise in the film when Sean questions whether he's the target of an elaborate con. They also arise in the audience as we puzzle over why Sean would devote such moral and monetary resources to Monika based on a chance meeting in a dive bar over limoncello.

Each plot strand is handsomely filmed and ably acted, particularly Kunis and Wilde's wounded women. But each also has cumbersome dialogue, with promise that is never fully realized, being tethered to a lackluster whole. The film falls prey to the critique Michael's editor offers of his book-in-progress: It's a composition of "random characters making various excuses for your life."

As if sensing this, Haggis attempts to interject some late-game drama, including more sex, gunplay and even incest, plus an insipid literary flourish he hopes will wrap everything together. Instead, Third Person feels as detached as its titular narrative mode.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Spinning Class."

Related Film

Third Person

Official Site: www.sonyclassics.com/thirdperson

Director: Paul Haggis

Writer: Paul Haggis

Cast: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, James Franco, Olivia Wilde, Maria Bello, Kim Basinger and Moran Atias

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