When asked in interviews about the inspiration for his Oscar-winning ensemble drama Crash, Paul Haggis has often cited an incident from his own life—a carjacking by two young men that sent him first into a spiral of paranoia, then into a bout of reflection. The anecdote, while honest, explains a lot: Crash feels downright therapeutic in its blinkered view on race relations, as though Haggis channeled his own post-traumatic thought process—knee-jerk prejudice, chased by heavy guilt about that prejudice—into a dozen invented characters. He took his own issues and sold them as the nation’s.
Roughly a decade later, the writer-director has made another ensemble drama about the intersecting lives of troubled urbanites. The good news is that Third Person, a romantic melodrama that leaps from Paris to Rome to New York, attempts nothing so lofty as a definitive treatise on American racism. Demonstrating a surprising degree of self-awareness, Haggis seems instead to be deconstructing his own artistic process, as well as the fault many have seen in it. “You have random characters making excuses for your life,” a literary agent tells the film’s requisite writer figure (Liam Neeson); it won’t be the last time someone accuses the author of using his characters as mouthpieces for his own feelings. The bad news—or the worst of it, as most of the news is bad—is that Haggis has tackled his own penchant for heavy-handedness with a typically heavy hand. Those who groaned through Crash will find plenty to groan about here, too.
Third Person, whose title portends the obviousness to come, crosscuts frantically among three equally contrived narratives. In Paris, a novelist (Neeson) toils away on his latest work, pausing to bicker and flirt with the young protégé (Olivia Wilde) for whom he left his wife (Kim Basinger). In Rome, a boorish American businessman (Adrien Brody) gets involved with a sultry mother (Moran Atias) trying to get her son back. And in New York, a former actress (Mila Kunis) attempts to win joint custody of the boy she endangered, battling her famous-painter ex (James Franco) with the help of a crusading lawyer (Maria Bello). Haggis draws multiple parallels between his characters, uniting them through a collective case of parental guilt and the capital-T themes of trust and forgiveness. Inevitably, the plot strands cross, sometimes in a way that seems to stretch the film’s geographic reality. Anyone who’s seen that goofy Bradley Cooper vehicle The Words—or the trailer, for that matter—will guess how these lost souls are really connected.
As schematic as Third Person is on a whole, it’s downright risible on a moment-to-moment basis. Coincidences abound, the characters undone as much by cruel fate as by their decisions. (That there’s a logical, narrative explanation for the contrivance doesn’t make it any less irritating.) Haggis piles on without restraint: When Kunis’ character is forced to shoplift to get her estranged son a gift, it’s not enough that her credit card be declined. It must be declined after she foolishly attempts to buy a whole armful of stuffed animals, removing more of the toys with each subsequent, humiliating swipe. Like Crash, the movie moves chiefly in montage, with Haggis cutting from one character’s smashing of a flower vase to another’s destruction of a phone, and so forth. (The Hours looks subtle compared to this game of cross-continental bingo.) The film only works, if it does at all, as some kind of act of self-parody, its creator trotting out his worst tricks and then commenting on them through dialogue. Even if that’s the case, he’s not hard enough on himself: “The structure is clever,” one character says of another’s writing, but that’s a backhanded compliment Third Person would be lucky to earn.