Paul Haggis of ‘Crash’ fame winds up causing a train wreck with ‘Third Person’
By Carl Kozlowski 06/19/2014
In 2004, writer-director Paul Haggis took Hollywood by surprise when he released “Crash,” a highly charged take on race relations in Los Angeles that went on to win the Best Picture Oscar and placed Haggis near the top of the industry’s hottest directors.
“Crash” interweaves the travails of numerous Angelenos as they fell into one culture clash after another, and that film had a visceral impact on moviegoers and critics.
Haggis has made some good movies since, with the anti-war drama “In the Valley of Elah” and the superb yet sadly overlooked “The Next Three Days,” but neither film connected with a mass audience. Add in profound life changes he surely has undergone since boldly leaving Scientology a few years ago and it’s no wonder that the filmmaker might want to return to the kind of story that earned him a golden statue.
In his latest film, “Third Person,” Haggis assembles an incredible cast to take on a series of separate but connected tales set in Paris and Italy. Yet, despite the fact that there is plenty of high emotion at moments in the film, overall it’s a strangely muted and slow-paced pastiche of sadness surrounding three couples who are each battling over a lost child.
The movie focuses foremost on Michael (Liam Neeson), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist living in a Paris hotel suite while finishing his latest book. After leaving his wife Elaine (Kim Basinger), he is having a wild affair with Anna (Olivia Wilde), a young journalist who wants to write and publish fiction.
Meanwhile, Scott (Adrien Brody) is a shady American businessman visiting Italy in order to steal designs from fashion houses. He meets a mysterious woman named Monika (Moran Atias) in a bar and finds that she is about to be reunited with her young daughter until the money she has saved to pay a smuggler to bring her to Italy is stolen. Scott feels compelled to help her and travels to southern Italy with her only to find that he might be getting conned by her and others.
The third story follows Julia (Mila Kunis), a former soap opera actress who is caught in a custody battle for her 6-year-old with her husband Rick (James Franco), a New York artist. Depleted of funds and desperate for a job, she becomes a hotel maid in the same bar that she once stayed in as a star, while her lawyer (Bello) tries to get her one last chance to win her child back.
These three stories may each sound interesting, and the performances (especially by Kunis and Franco) are generally terrific, but Haggis has so many darkly lit rooms and confusing ways of bringing the characters together that the entire movie becomes a ball of confusion by the end. It appears that characters said to be in different cities are in fact in the same ones, and many of the characters come in and out of each other’s lives through extremely preposterous connections.
At the end of the screening I attended, I asked the entire roomful of critics if anyone had any idea what the plot was trying to say by the end. The result was explosive laughter and shared confusion. One other terrible aspect of the movie is its score, which is overwrought with treacly, repetitive piano playing.
It’s all a shame that a fine cast is wasted, as each of them gives their all to their parts in this mess. The first person to blame for “Third Person” is Paul Haggis.
“Third Person” opens at the ArcLight Hollywood this weekend before coming to Pasadena next week.