Canadian-born writer-director Paul Haggis won the 2004 best picture Academy Award for Crash, a movie about a diverse group of characters whose lives are intertwined in surprising ways.
Some called the movie emotionally manipulative and unworthy of the Oscar, but there’s no question it made us feel for, and think about, its characters. And put an enormous burden of expectation on Haggis.
Haggis returns to the director’s chair for the first time since 2010’s The Next Three Days with Third Person, another film about characters whose lives are connected in an unexpected fashion. But despite a stellar cast and some deeply personal roots, it’s a movie that will likely confound more people that it impresses.
Haggis has said Third Person is about questions he was trying to answer about himself and his own relationships, and he put these questions into the three sets of characters in the film – Michael (Liam Neeson), a Paris-based novelist with a crumbling marriage and a feisty, secretive lover (Olivia Wilde); Julia (Mila Kunis), a failed New York actress trying to regain custody of her son in a bitter battle with the boy’s father (James Franco), and Scott (Adrien Brody), a corporate thief on business in Rome, who gets drawn into the personal drama of a Roma woman (Moran Atias).
Being that this is a Haggis film, it’s safe to assume these three tales touch each other in some way, the first mystery being an odd space/time connection between Michael and Julia’s tales. But as the storylines play out and we begin to pick up more and more clues about what’s really happening, the payoff is ultimately not worthy of the buildup.
The cast is uniformly solid, and Haggis knows how to sketch keenly defined characters with genuine hopes and fears, even if at least one of the relationships might cause a few jaws to drop. But they feel imprisoned by the boundaries of the movie’s too-clever construct, and the emotion that Haggis is striving for never quite registers. There's screeching tires, but no crash.