Stories He Tells
Eight minutes. That’s how long it took. I suspected going into Third Person that I was going to hate it, so I decided to check my watch to see how long it took before I could feel the bile seeping in. It happened during a scene in which an American businessman named Scott (Adrien Brody) sits in a bar in Rome and watches a beautiful Romanian immigrant named Monika (Moran Atias) walk in. Romantic music starts playing on the soundtrack to indicate that Scott is besotted. It reminded me that this is a work by Paul Haggis, a filmmaker with no faith in his actors to convey the emotions in the scene or in our intelligence to deduce what these characters are feeling.
Three plotlines comprise the film. Scott finds himself caught up in Monika’s attempts to free her 8-year-old daughter from a loathsome mobster (Vinicio Marchioni) who threatens to pimp the girl out unless her mother pays what she owes him. In New York, a former actress named Julia (Mila Kunis) tries to regain custody of her son after being accused of harming the boy. In Paris, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist named Michael (Liam Neeson) carries on an affair with his much-younger girlfriend Anna (Olivia Wilde), a women’s magazine journalist who aims to be a serious writer.
The relationship of the plots to one another isn’t revealed until the end. Suffice it to say that this sort of thing has been done better and more cleverly in other movies. (François Ozon’s Swimming Pool comes to mind.) Worse, the characters are walking piles of clichés, and most of them are pretty unpleasant to be around as well. I guess Haggis thinks that showing them behaving unpleasantly is a sign of integrity, theirs or his. Neither one is enough.
The Michael-Anna relationship is icky in the extreme, and the age difference between them is only a tiny part of it. They’re codependent and mutually abusive, and she seems to find his creepy behavior delightful for reasons that are (of course) explained way too neatly. The director doesn’t help matters. GQ’s Tom Carson got into trouble for his review of this film by focusing on Olivia Wilde’s ass, and he deserved to, but he was onto something — Haggis’ camera is pruriently focused on her half-dressed or completely undressed body. The filmmaker never subjects his male characters to this sort of leering treatment.
The further shame is, Wilde is actually pretty good in this hackneyed role. Even better is Kunis, giving a truly wrenching performance as a frantic mother who can’t seem to stop sabotaging herself. Still, they go down with this capsizing ship. All the self-importance and overwrought melodrama of Haggis’ Crash is back in force here, only now his literary pretensions have been brought to the surface, too. If that’s your idea of a good time, you’re welcome to this. I’ll be somewhere else.
Starring Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, and Moran Atias. Written and directed by Paul Haggis. Rated R.