Mark Reviews Movies

Third Person


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Haggis

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

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)

Running Time: 2:17

Release Date: 6/20/14 (limited); 6/27/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 26, 2014

Third Person leaves us completely in the dark until its final minute. Even when we think we've uncovered the mystery of three stories that are vaguely interconnected by a few themes and impossible physical interactions, we're really just waiting for writer/director Paul Haggis to drop the veil one more time for the ultimate reveal.

Again, this takes place in the last minute of the movie, so that leaves you, dear reader, and me in a bit of conundrum. It would be unfair to specifically discuss that concluding minute, but so much of why the movie is such a frustratingly anticlimactic piece of bait-and-switch rests in what is revealed and how what comes to light pretty much destroys whatever trust we have put into Haggis' narrative.

Up until that point, the movie is a globe-hopping story of characters suffering from grief over past decisions and uncertainty over present ones. Two of these scenarios seem at least to be indirectly connected through small details and specific actions, despite the fact that they take place in two different hemispheres. The other never really seems to fit until the movie's big reveal, and even then, the connection relies entirely us having confidence in what Haggis does with the movie's ending moments.

We don't, and that's because the screenplay hides vital information until it is far too late for the story to actually do anything with the information. We're left with a revelation that is meant to be an emotional blow but that instead comes off as a deceptive sucker punch. The movie isn't an honest account of mourning; it's a narrative parlor trick—an act of sleight of hand that repeatedly calls attention to its own assumed cleverness but that isn't even brave enough to tell us how the trick works.

The three stories take place in three major cities across the world (By the way, it is always the same time of day in each of these locations, although that's more of a hint that there is something generally amiss in the bigger picture than a mistake). In a hotel room in Paris, a writer named Michael (Liam Neeson) is working on his next book, with signs of a troubled mind—a drink, a cigarette, and some pills—accompanying him in his writing.   His girlfriend Anna (Olivia Wilde) has come to the city, and the two each have their own baggage—for him an ex-wife (Kim Basinger) and for her another lover—that is keeping their relationship from stability.

In New York, Julia (Mila Kunis) has started working as a maid at a hotel after struggling to find a steady job. She's in the middle of bitter custody dispute with her ex-husband Rick (James Franco) after being accused of the attempted murder of their son. Her attorney Theresa (Maria Bello), who has a fear of the pool in her backyard, is starting to believe Julia is a hopeless cause.

In Rome, Scott (Adrien Brody), a corporate spy who obtains fashion designs from big companies for his employer, stops in a bar and meets Monika (Moran Atias), a woman in a red dress with a secret. She leaves behind a bag full of money, and the next day, she returns looking for the bag. Scott decides to help her and ends up in a tricky romance surrounding a kidnapping plot involving Monika's daughter and in which he may or may not be the mark of a scam.

While that third story seems out of place in the overall narrative and never comes together on its own merits, there are a few scenes and performances in the other two that work on their own. Neeson's callous Michael gets a taste of his own medicine when he confronts a publishing agent (David Harewood) about his latest manuscript. Julia and Rick finally have it out in a scene where he convinces her to tell the truth about their son's accident, and Rick's girlfriend (Loan Chabanol) comforts the woman she knows is at the center of her boyfriend's problems out of compassion. Kunis and Wilde are especially effective, both playing different kinds of sympathetic messes who know their flaws and simply try their best to get through the day.

Haggis, though, keeps us at a distance from these individual characters and scenarios in the same way he refuses to let us in on the big picture: by selectively hiding information until there's nowhere to go with it. Third Person is more concerned with unimportant questions of its trickery (like how a note written in New York ends up in Paris only to return to a wastebasket in New York) than any honest answers about the important questions regarding its characters.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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