Winning Academy Awards for producing and writing Crash may have ultimately done more harm than good to Paul Haggis’s reputation. Just as well-respected movies like Shakespeare in Love and Ordinary People became “the movies that beat” seventies auteurs like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese at an ultimately meaningless awards ceremony, Crash went from well-acted if dopey melodrama to beneficiary of Academy homophobia when it beat out Brokeback Mountain for the big award. Sorting through the Haggis CV, apart from Crash, he looks like a perfectly decent screenwriter for hire, partially responsible for a couple of good Daniel Craig Bond movies and some more serious work either for Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby; Flags of Our Fathers) or in a style Eastwood might appreciate (In the Valley of Elah, which Haggis also directed). An author of high-toned melodrama, in other words.
When his new film Third Person begins, it seems like an attempt to merge the multiple-character narrative of Crash with the slightly pulpier sensibility of other Haggis work, and it’s a relief to realize that its three major stories, however interconnected they may be, will not attempt to tackle an issue as weighty as race in America. Instead, Third Person is structured as some manner of puzzle box as it cuts mysteriously between characters and cities. In Paris, a troubled writer (Liam Neeson) carries on a push-pull rendezvous with a younger lover/mentee, also a writer (Olivia Wilde). In New York, a desperate woman (Mila Kunis) fights for custody of her young son against a well-off artist (James Franco). And in Rome, a businessman (Adrien Brody) gets involved with a single mother (Moran Atias). What these stories mean to one another is a mystery telegraphed somewhat by the screenplay (though not nearly so much as the movie’s trailer, which all but summarizes the last ten minutes of the film).
The Kunis/Franco story is the Crashiest of the three: empathetic, well-acted, and sometimes heart-tugging, but cranked up so high with tears and screaming that it borders on cinematic hysteria. The Neeson/Wilde thread goes quieter, and if Neeson’s low-key anguish makes for an odd pair with Wilde’s insinuating sexiness, at least it’s also an unpredictable one (though their discussions of writing and the publishing industry are more familiar: pure screenwriterese). The least enjoyable story, by far, belongs to poor Brody, adrift in a story that sometimes feels like it’s taking up at least 138 of the movie’s overlong 140 minutes. In case we don’t understand that his character begins the film as an Ugly American in Italy, Haggis has him explain to himself and others that he hates the country, while expressing his disgust that a corner bar doesn’t serve hamburgers. It only gets more disagreeable from there, as Brody and Melega form a half-flirtatious, half-contentious, all-insufferable relationship that makes even less sense than Olivia Wilde putting up with a cranky, chain-smoking Liam Neeson.
These stories proceed with round-robin cutting, matching images, parallel setups, and perpetuating mysteries about backstories and motivations until Haggis seems to be writing in circles. Neeson’s writer, then, seems like an obvious stand-in for the filmmaker (nice doppelganger if you can get it), which may explain why his story, aimless as it sometimes can be, feels more grounded than the other two. Actors like Neeson, more in presence than fully realized performance, make Third Person watchably stupid, instead of intolerably so. But instead of Crash minus the self-seriousness, Third Person plays like Haggis wrestling with his notions of melodrama – melodramatically.