Third Person announces itself in a messy tangle of people and locations, an unsolved Rubik's cube of disparate lives waiting for a hand to start turning. There's a harried woman running late for an appointment in New York. A stereotypical ugly American receiving a secretive envelope in Rome. A shapely woman changing clothes in a cab in Paris. A woman scared to jump in her pool, an artist teaching his son to finger-paint, and, most importantly, a Writer.
We know immediately that the latter is The Writer, because he sits in a dim room in front of a glowing computer screen, cigarette smoke lazily curling out of the ashtray in front of a bottle of booze, while he pops a couple of pills out of a prescription bottle. The setting is the answer to an unspoken challenge to fit as many movie-author stereotypes into one shot as possible.
Writer/director Paul Haggis has traveled similar territory before, in his Oscar-winning Crash, giving us characters based around well-established types, who marginally intersect in service of conveying an Important Lesson. Where the former film takes on racism, Third Person examines love, particularly as it relates to issues of betrayed trust, victimization and what happens when we catastrophically fail those we love and who love us.
There are three main stories at work here: In Paris, that writer, Michael (Liam Neeson), is plugging away with frustration on his new book when his mistress/protégé Anna (Olivia Wilde) comes to visit. In Rome, Sean (Adrien Brody) is a corporate spy who is drawn into a human trafficking/blackmail scheme by the mysterious Monika (Moran Atias). And in New York, a hotel maid (Mila Kunis) accused of attempting to kill her son fights with her artist ex (James Franco) to be able to visit the boy. In all of these barely intersecting stories there are either explicit or hinted references to lost or abused children, who are the catalysts for fractured adult relationships.
The scope may be far more intimate, but Third Person is actually a much more ambitious film than Crash -- which also means it has that much farther to fall when it fails. That ambition is admirable, in that Haggis is experimenting with using a form already identified with him — that multithreaded narrative — and then using a twist of perspective to throw everything into an entirely new light. The problem is, the twist, such as it is, is telegraphed early and frequently.
That twist also provides the film structural excuses for characters who seem driven less by their own needs and more by the needs of their plots. That creates a mountain of implausible developments, like Sean's rationally inexplicable desire to help Monika out of a jam that seems likely to be a scam, or a fairly nauseating reveal as to why Anna so enjoys involvements with married older men. It's not that these things can't happen, but they just feel obviously constructed. That's a weakness that would otherwise be laid directly at the director's feet, but the story has its own built-in explanation for these implausibilities that allows those criticisms to be easily deflected.
That explanation also provides a rationale for why the connections between these stories are extremely tenuous. But their lack of direct interaction is still a narrative problem: Without more direct interaction between the stories, it often just seems like aimless cross-cutting between barely related stories with a common theme. Haggis tries to match up similar moments in the stories to cut from one to the other, masking their disparities, but in the end the exercise feels tedious, particularly at a yawningly self-indulgent 137 minutes.
Figuring out the mystery early on will mean spending much of the film trying to convince yourself that's not really where it's headed. Not figuring it out will mean meeting the big reveal with the eye rolls that accompany "it was all a dream"-type conclusions. (No, it's not a dream.)
If the film didn't take its own intended profundity so seriously, it might get a pass. But the numbing tastefulness of Dario Marianelli's score combined with the dour and desperate faces the script demands of the cast 90 percent of the time just demonstrate that Third Person has no intention of admitting how ridiculous it all really is, making this movie a puzzle that was better left unsolved.