Paul Haggis’s bottomlessly, exhaustively bad Third Person may well represent the final twitch of rigor mortis in the genre sometimes called hyperlink cinema, which rubs disparate characters’ plotlines against one another in an intentional muddle, clarified only by movie’s end. The richest of these organize their narrative threads along tangible, geographic lines: a music festival (Nashville), a neighborhood (Do the Right Thing), the transnational flow of drugs (Traffic). But then there are films like Babel, Magnolia, and Haggis’s own Oscar-winning Crash that re-schematize the world along their makers’ philosophical fault lines, using every scene as a chance to pile on more evidence of the screenplay’s point—whatever the hell it turns out to be. If the glue holding Crash’s arcs together was Haggis’s belief in the power of racism, this time it’s love.
Liam Neeson stars as Michael, a novelist in Paris having an affair with a former protégée, Anna (Olivia Wilde), as his wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger), waits haplessly by the phone back in the States. Meanwhile, Adrian Brody plays Scott, a businessman in Italy who becomes obsessed with a dark-eyed Roma woman, Monika (Moran Atias), because her daughter is being held ransom by child traffickers. Like Michael, Scott is estranged from his wife, Theresa (Maria Bello), an otherwise high-powered New York lawyer whose perpetually broke, late, and scatterbrained client, Julia (Mila Kunis), is on the verge of losing visitation rights to her young son forever, following a moment of (contested) child abuse. Severing the tie is the boy’s father, a smug Williamsburg-based painter, Rick (James Franco), whose cold unwillingness to consider her side of the story is Haggis’s main cudgel against skepticism.
If done well, any of these could have sufficed for its own 137-minute film; in its crazed dash to crisscross these seemingly unrelated strands, Haggis’s filmmaking betrays its own dreary blandness as if on repeat. A housekeeper at a posh hotel, Julia scribbles the time/place details for her next meeting with Theresa on a scrap of paper and then leaves it in one of the rooms; as she panics in realization, Haggis smash-cuts back to Michael’s suite in Paris. His character is framed in the same medium close-up (wistfully smoking cigarettes while pounding on his MacBook) over and over again, and Dario Marianelli’s score makes sure to accordion-flutter whenever Atias’s character shows a little leg. Lest the filmmaker be accused of lack of self-awareness, Michael emerges as the conduit for Third Person’s awfulness, when a publisher rep—angry at both Michael’s lackluster work, and his cuckolding of Elaine—slams the once-great writer over coffee for now featuring “random characters making excuses for your life.”
The problem with that observation isn’t that he’s wrong, but that the camera sticks with Michael after he registers it. Why spin a tale while telling the audience (early and often) that its narrator is full of shit? Why examine a crisis of personal failure if the sad-eyed American antihero nevertheless must end up in bed with the mysterious gypsy babe? As Haggis’s three stories each hit their maximum emotional frisson in perfect syncopation, the metatextual crescendo that unifies them is revealed: This isn’t a story about love, but a treatise on failed varietals of parental love. It’s been proposed that Third Person is a veiled apologia for Haggis’s involvement in Scientology, with its own extensive history of child-disappearing problems. If true, that’s a noble spark of inspiration, but the filmmaker would’ve done better to just write somebody a check.