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Third Person
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Gives The Word "Haggis" A Bad Name."
1 stars

Sobczynski As I write these words, I have yet to see this week's presumed blockbuster behemoth, "Transformers: Insert Instantly Forgettable Subtitle Here" and, to be perfectly frank, it is not exactly a cinematic experience that I am looking forward to with any real sense of excitement or anticipation--having already endured the three previous installments in all their fetid, ear-splitting glory, forgive me for not being eager at the prospect of yet another helping that reportedly clocks in at nearly three hours. However, unless that film proves to be the final nail in the coffin that solidifies the Death of Cinema once and for all--and that possibility does exist--there is actually a halfway decent chance that it will not be the stupidest major film to crop up at your local multiplex this weekend. No, that booby prize goes to "Third Person," the latest effort from Paul Haggis, the creator of the absurdly overpraised "Crash" and several other films since then that you have no doubt forgotten about since then.

I hated every single thing about "Crash"--its melodramatic tone, its simplistic notions about society, racism and the downside to human trafficking and its pseudo-profound thoughts about we are all connected deep down despite the social, economic and racial barriers that we ourselves erect to keep us separate--and the fact that it won the Best Picture Oscar in 2005 over--practically every movie from that year except for that "Honeymooners" remake will serve as my lifelong example of why it is impossible to take the Academy Awards seriously. And yet, as awful and unwatchable as that film was, it may actually be a better, stronger and more cohesive work than "Third Person," which is so bad that even people who liked "Crash" (and some apparently still exist to this day, according to legend) will want to repossess Haggis's Oscar and bop him over the head with it in revenge for what he has perpetrated this time around.

The film tells three different stories set in three different locales at roughly the same time and all of them featuring tales of people struggling mightily to come to terms with things. In Paris, Liam Neeson turns up as Michael, a once-promising novelist whose initial success has been followed by a number of professional and personal failures. Having recently left his wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger), he has relocated to the City of Lights in order to work on his new novel while pursuing an affair with Anna (Olivia Wilde), a journalist with literary ambitions of her own that he halfheartedly encourages when he isn't locking her out of his hotel room when she is stark naked. As it turns out, Michael's latest book has a character who is fairly explicitly based on Anna and a shocking secret that will be revealed to the world if he includes it, leaving him to ponder endlessly about what is more important to him--her or his work. (Of course, it doesn't dawn on him that merely by asking the question in the first place, he has already pretty much answered it.)

Meanwhile, over in Italy, Adrien Brody is Scott, the prototypical Ugly American who goes about his shady business of stealing dress designs to sell to knock-off clothes makers while spilling anti-Italian sentiment to a degree not heard in a film since Paul Dooley raged about "the goddamned Eye-ties" in "Breaking Away," one of the countless movies you should be watching instead of this one. With a couple of hours to kill before leaving, he stops in a watering hole called Cafe American (speaking of movies you should be watching right now) and meets Monika (Moran Attias), a babe carrying a bag containing 5000 euros that she plans to give to local thug Giorgio (Michele Melega) in exchange for smuggling her daughter into the country for a reunion. Through a series of contrivances, it all goes south and the money disappears before she can make the drop. Scott offers to replace the money but insists on tagging along for the ride over her protestations. It eventually begins to dawn on Scott that he may be entrapped in a "House of Games"-style con job and he finds himself pondering whether to continue to play along with a gag that could empty his entire bank account or cut loose a woman who may indeed by in dire need of his fumbling attempts to help.

Meanwhile (and sweet fancy Moses, there a lot of meanwhiles on display here) in New York, Mila Kunis is Julia, a one-time soap opera star who gave up her career in order to have a child with fancy-pants artist Rick (inevitably played by James Franco). Unsurprisingly, the relationship fell apart and after a confusingly explained incident with her son Jesse (Oliver Crouch)--near as I can tell, he was playing with some laundry bags and she let him get caught up in them in order to teach a lesson about the perils of having an idiot for a parent--she has been labeled a neglectful mother and has lost custody to Rick and his new girlfriend, despite the fact that most courts would hesitate to give custody of even a pack of gum to anyone embodied by the likes of James Franco. Now reduced to working as a maid in the very same posh hotel where she once partied, Julia struggles to keep it together while her lawyer (Maria Bello) tries to get her visitation rights but the fates seem to be conspiring to keep her down at every turn. With nowhere else to go, she throws herself at the mercy of her ex as a last-ditch effort to see their kid but finds herself pondering whether the price he is asking in exchange is too high.

As much as I dislike Paul Haggis as a filmmaker, I will concede that some of the projects on which he has worked exclusively as a screenwriter, such as "Million Dollar Baby" and some of the recent James Bond movies, have turned out to be pretty spectacular. While cynics might suggest this only means that his contributions were reworked and rewritten by others, I will politely suggest that when Haggis is more effective when he is working on projects with well-defined parameters ("Million Dollar Baby" and the Bond films were adaptations) and working with collaborators strong enough to rein in him when necessary. Working by himself this time around, he lacks both of those elements and as a result, the screenplay goes off the rails so quickly and so definitively that nothing could possibly save it. Some writers might begin the screenwriting process by jotting down a couple of overriding themes, a few character names along with a personality trait or two for each one and a few additional ideas that they will get around to fleshing out later. With "Third Person," it feels as if Haggis went from compiling that list to saying "Action" on the set without ever getting around to writing an actual screenplay that would utilize them.

Although not quite as sprawling in scope as "Crash," at least from a character perspective, "Third Person" is still pretty much an ungodly mess from start to finish. Taken individually, the three stories are each painfully uninteresting sketches that feel like ideas that Haggis couldn't develop into full narratives and tossed them into a drawer until hitting upon the idea of jamming them together. The characters basically run the gamut from boring to absolutely unlikable and there is never a single moment in which it is possible to actually care or connect with them on any level. The big dramatic twists are handled with all the refined subtlety of an anvil to the head and any gasps that they may inspire from audience will presumably be from incredulity rather from genuine surprise. Instead of giving us plausible situations and interesting people to put in those situations, Haggis has simply tossed viewers a bunch of arch literary conceits and assumed that his job was pretty much done.

And since all that Haggis has offered up is a bunch of arch literary concepts, the only thing that viewers are left to cling to is how he will somehow contrive to bring all of the seemingly disparate plot lines together into a whole, as is the custom with multi-storyline films of this type. Without going into too much detail, I will merely mention that early on in the proceedings, Haggis drops a couple of hints of where he is going in such a clunky manner that I naturally assumed that he was trying to throw off viewers before heading in a new and theoretically surprising fashion. Nope, it turns out that he is going in that one direction after all, a move that is a.) underwhelming on the surface (it is the kind of thing that wouldn't pass muster in a correspondence creative writing class) and b.) agonizing to watch unfold because of Haggis's conviction that he is stunning us all with his creativity as well as his message, which he presumably hopes people will be avidly discussing as they leave the theatre. My guess is that when the lights come up at the end of the film, the only thing that most viewers will be saying is an incredulous "Oh come on!"

With its utter waste of a fine cast, none of whom make any impression save for Olivia Wilde (and that, at the risk of sounding crude, is largely due to her oftentimes clothing-optional approach to the part) and Adrien Brody (mostly because of his subtlety-optional approach, perhaps done as a way of exercising his demons of having worked in Italy on the notoriously troubled Dario Argento film "Giallo"), and a screenplay whose sense of self-importance is outdone only by its sheer stupidity, "Third Person" proves that a movie can omit car chases, gunfights, laser battles and enormous special-effects-filled set-pieces and still be a stupid and unwatchable mess when put in the wrong hands. Sadly, between the cast, the regard that some people still hold for "Crash" and the general dearth of adult-oriented material during the summer season, there is actually a chance that it could pull in an audience looking for something different. Sadly, this is so bad that it could drive them out of multiplexes for good or even into one of the theaters playing "Transformers 4."

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originally posted: 06/27/14 13:06:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

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  20-Jun-2014 (R)
  DVD: 30-Sep-2014


  DVD: 30-Sep-2014

Directed by
  Paul Haggis

Written by
  Paul Haggis

  Mila Kunis
  James Franco
  Olivia Wilde
  Liam Neeson
  Adrien Brody
  Kim Basinger

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