Tuesday, July 1, 2014

An exercise in diminishing returns

Pieces of puzzle don't fit together well in Paul Haggis's latest.

Director Paul Haggis's new movie, Third Person falters, but boasts an unusually watchable cast led by Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody and Israeli actress Moran Atias.

Perhaps best known for the over-rated Oscar-winner Crash (2004), Haggis tells three related stories that don't cohere until the movie's unsatisfying conclusion.

Third Person has not been particularly well reviewed, but as flawed as I believe the movie to be, I was happy to see a film that, at least, attempted to deal with adult concerns.

In the film's best performance, Neeson plays a stalled novelist who's living in a Paris hotel, where he's trying to finish a book. He's left his wife (Kim Basinger) at home in the U.S., perhaps so that he can carry on an affair with his mistress (Wilde), a journalist who's also trying her hand at fiction.

Brody plays a businessman who steals other people's fashion designs and sells them to manufacturers of knock-offs. On a trip to Rome, where it's practically impossible to eat badly, he becomes an ugly American in search of a hamburger.

Dubious taste aside, Brody's character finds himself involved with a Romanian immigrant (Atias) who pulls him into a web of possible deceit.

In the third story, Mila Kunis plays a New York actress who's working as a maid while trying to win visiting rights with her young son, who lives with his artist father (James Franco). Kunis's character has been accused of abusing the child.

The actors give the enterprise their best shot. I especially enjoyed seeing Neeson in a role which didn't require him to wield a gun. Wilde's performance as a woman of mercurial moods proves alternately alluring and alarming, and Kunis pushes her character far out on an emotional ledge.

Third Person -- which deals with issues of trust and betrayal and also with the loss of children -- is too transparently tricky and, at times, too willing to push matters toward strained extremes. As a result, many of its twists tend to take us out of the picture's flow.

By trying so hard to describe a world of unrecognized connections, Haggis -- who also wrote the screenplay -- loses the battle between life's real complexities and those dreamed up by a writer who's capable of intriguing us one minute and making our eyes roll with disbelief, the next.

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