Third Person written and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash) tells several interlocking stories (just like Crash) connected by theme, and similar back-stories with a tone of sincere emotion (just. like. Crash).
These stories are implied to be spawned from the mind of a once Pullitzer prize winning writer, Michael (Liam Neeson), who, now on his sixth or seventh novel, has lost that spark of full self-exposition his first book had, and sits in a Paris hotel trudging through his latest literary efforts. After a somber conversation with his assumedly estranged wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger), he is met with his all-around troubled girlfriend/mistress Anna (Olivia Wilde) who is prone to mercurial behavior, but still has him eating out of her hand.
Then there is the story of corporate spy Sean (Adrien Brody) who gets mixed up in a possible con as he gravitates to another troubled female in the story (there are many of them), Monika (Moran Atias) who with an emotionally cold attitude towards life claims she is trying to get her daughter back from some very bad criminal who turns out to resemble a James Bond villain in his demeanor.
Another story follows the quintessential fuck-up Julia (Mila Kunis) as she attempts to regain visitation rights with her son after almost killing him in an accident. Her ex-husband Rick (James Franco) is happy to see her fail by her own hand during each attempt.
Finally, there is a smidgen of a fourth story in that Julia’s constantly chiding but steadfast lawyer, Theresa (Maria Bello) fights her own demons of living with the grief and guilt of losing her daughter after she drowned in the swimming pool while under the neglectful eye of her now estranged husband, Sean, from the second story.
As moments play out and we move into each subplot, it becomes clear that these stories express certain aspects of our writer, Michael’s mind. He steals everything from his real encounters, and even mentions that he is working on a piece about an author who can only feel emotion through his characters. Something clearly happened with a child he and his wife had, and their marriage ended in part because of it, and,in large part, because of Michael’s unfaithfulness.
As the stories heat up, and conflict intensifies, and each main character must make hard decisions, each story becomes very real with each character undergoing great changes ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their feelings so that they can make different choices in the future.
Third Person leaves no nuance to be inferred by the viewer. Everything is served on a silver platter to the audience almost knocking them on the head as it is delivered. These people all have issues, and by the end, they have moments of reckoning where they must admit their mistakes. In some instances their demons aren’t eluded to, they are lived out in heavy handed detail so that nothing is lost on us. Maybe if I was a bright twelve year old who had not discovered Catcher in the Rye yet, I may have seen this movie and felt smart afterwards for “getting” it, but as someone in their thirties, I expect to jog my intelligence just a little bit when I see a movie about love, loss, and personal truths.
The real loss in Third Person is that of a compelling story. Instead, it feels very scripted, and there are lots of people literally running after some enigma of what they want, which just seems like plain lazy writing. Haggis allows his characters to act without rationale and explains it away with them having sordid histories.
Each character represents a facet of Michael’s guilt with the loss of his son. Sean represents Michael’s selfishness that resulted in his son’s death; Julia, the misdirection of anger at his child instead of at his languishing relationship with his wife; Theresa, the fear of revisiting the loss which explains why Michael has hidden himself away in Europe all this time; Michael (for it is revealed that Michael himself is a character in his own story), avoiding self healing by seeking to heal Anna’s; and Anna, feeling so stuck to her own past and previous abuse that she must continue to seek it and thwart any attempts by Michael to help heal it.
More could have emerged if the story lines weren’t so preoccupied with intertwining with clever, subtle wipes. It all seems maudlin and forced as did Crash. I assume Haggis is expressing parts of himself more so in Third Person than in previous efforts as this film is about a writer delving into the existential question of how to seek truth and free oneself from the prison of ambivalence. Through coming to terms with the past and accepting the truth of the situation, I guess. Oh, and throw love in there too. Yeah. Love is important.
If you liked Crash, then you will most likely enjoy Third Person. I didn’t like Crash and, if you can believe it, I didn’t like Third Person.