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10 Jul 2014

Complex Pic: 'Third Person' Is a Flawed but Worthwhile Puzzle Movie

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James Franco and Olivia Wilde in Third Person. James Franco and Olivia Wilde in Third Person.

It’s been 10 years since writer-director Paul Haggis, quite surprisingly, won some Oscars for his Crash, a fine but overrated movie. That film had a bunch of storylines woven together, and offered good actors decent showcases. It also seemed to be setting the stage for a promising directorial career.

However, Haggis did not capitalize on his Oscar triumph. Since then, he’s made a very good movie that nobody saw in the U.S. (the Tommy Lee Jones-helmed In the Valley of Elah) and a so-so, tepid thriller (Russell Crowe’s The Next Three Days). Otherwise, he’s generally fallen off the radar.

His latest film, the ambitious Third Person, won’t do much to change that. It’s a respectable but divisive effort that will confound a lot of viewers, much like Cameron Crowe’s complex and unjustly maligned Vanilla Sky did. It tries to do a lot—and it doesn’t always succeed. Some will see Third Person as a train wreck; I see it as a flawed but reputable effort.

What we get is a puzzle movie with Michael (Liam Neeson), a struggling Pulitzer Prize-winning author, as its centerpiece. The once-prolific author can’t get on track with his latest novel as he struggles to produce words in a Paris hotel. His tempestuous lover, Anna (Olivia Wilde), comes to visit. The two have a strange, sadomasochistic relationship that will be explained later on.

Within the story of Michael and Anna, we get connected characters that I won’t reveal, because they are part of the puzzle. The film also gives us two other major plot threads: One involves Adrien Brody as Scott, some sort of fashion spy in Italy, getting involved in bad things with a troubled woman (Moran Atias). This plot thread proves to be the film’s least-interesting, although Brody is quite good. The other thread involves Julia (Mila Kunis), a disgraced former soap-opera star who is being barred from seeing her son. She’s accused of trying to harm him, and Rick (James Franco), the boy’s finger-painting father (yes, he’s a professional finger painter), believes she is guilty.

The locations change, in a somewhat confusing manner, between Paris, New York and Rome, with all of the characters connecting through unexplained misery or loss. The film clocks in at 137 minutes, and it frustrates at times, because it takes its sweet time revealing its ultimate purpose. However, that revelation is clever. I’m not going to say it ties the film together perfectly, but it does result in some clarity and qualifies as a decent twist.

Kunis—an actress who can range from absolutely terrible to pretty damned good—leans toward her better tendencies here. Yes, there are moments when she delivers a line or two as if she has no sense of what is going on. Conversely, she has moments, including her final big scene, in which she is absolutely dynamite.

After her endearing work in Drinking Buddies, Wilde continues to show she’s an actress with exceptional power. Anna is her most complex character yet—alternately mean and vulnerable, while being completely unpredictable.

Neeson proves again that he knows his way around a drama. Michael is seemingly a good man, but he has some ruthless capabilities; Neeson is astute at showing both sides of the coin. Franco, who is in half of the films being released this summer, delivers his most realized, sturdy work in years as a man struggling with his sense of obligation to his child and an unstable former lover.

I think Haggis has yet to deliver his best film; Third Person, while worth seeing, is definitely not it.

Third Person opens Friday, July 11, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

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