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The highly conflicted love stories of three odd couples in New York, Paris and Rome are deftly intercut in Third Person, the latest display of multiple storytelling technique from the British writer-director Paul Haggis of Crash fame. But the drama and intensity that are his signatures are mostly missing from these vividly dramatized but uninvolving romantic crises, none of which are particularly believable. The intention is for each separate story to illuminate the others, but the bottom line is that they really don’t. An excellent ensemble cast, led by Liam Neeson, Adrien Brody, Mila Kunis and James Franco doesn’t disappoint, though they struggle to keep things afloat over a running time of more than two hours.
A fairytale aura pervades the two European tales, which make such blatant use of their “exotic” settings they could be part of Woody Allen’s capitals of Europe cycle. The Rome episode begins in a dank bar where Sean (Brody), a rip-off clothing designer in Italy on business, meets a beautiful Romanian gypsy (Israeli actress Moran Atias) dressed like a flamenco dancer. Monika exudes haughty dignity and disdain for the American’s advances, but in the end she entangles him in the story of her 8-year-old daughter, who she says is being held hostage unless she can ransom her. Their unlikely romance keeps falling into broad comedy, with painful scenes of Monika tearing around Rome in an ancient Fiat, then veering back into quasi-melodrama.
In New York, meanwhile, the emotionally unstable but big-hearted Julia (Kunis) fights, along with her testy lawyer (Maria Bello), for visitation rights to see her young son. She has been accused of hurting the boy, who now lives with his painter-father (Franco) and his girlfriend. It’s a role that gives Kunis enormous room to express her talent while she struggles with her inner demons to toe the line and hold down a steady job as a hotel maid. But it’s a pretty thankless part for Franco, the insensitive villain of the piece, whose affluent downtown loft testifies against him as a “real” artist. Not to mention his awkward attempt to get his son to dip his hand in blue paint and create art. Situating the characters in identity-defining social circumstances, this tale comes closest in atmosphere to Crash’s social concerns, and Julia is the only character who seems real enough to care about.
The story that stands out and grounds the film is another, however. From his suite in a luxurious Paris hotel, writer Michael (Neeson) tries to reassess his life and talents after the double whammy of a personal tragedy and a once-successful career going down in flames. Estranged from his wife (Kim Basinger in an affecting cameo over the phone), he brings over his knockout young lover Anna (Olivia Wilde of Rush and Tron: Legacy) to Paris to play with for a week. But Anna turns out to be a smart, sassy lass with literary pretensions of her own. At first her barbed wit and put-downs appear to be part of a funny game the lovers play; but as their story unfolds, she seems more like a diabolical black lady out to ruin a good man. Both actors are good and Haggis reserves his sharpest dialogue for them. Wilde also has an anthology-worthy streaking scene after she seductively strips naked outside Michael’s door, which he closes in her face. Her dash through the posh hotel corridors starkers, and her unexpected delight in his cruel joke, are the film’s funniest moment and define her character perfectly.
As the writer, Neeson is in top form, in control of every moment, portraying a man so full of lights and shadows he keeps you guessing which will prevail up to the last shot. If Kunis gives her story a shot of raw intensity, he effortlessly holds the key to the film’s ambiguous depiction of love as a multi-directional super highway leading to good and evil. It all depends who’s in the driver’s seat.
For the record, the stories, though separate, do interlock in certain surreal and unnecessary ways. Editor Jo Francis’ extensive intercutting of the three is remarkably smooth. Cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli, who has done some interesting work in Italy for Ferzan Ozpetek and Sergio Castellitto, lends a sophisticated European note to the outdoor cafés and five-star hotels, as well as a cozy sense of intimacy.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Production companies: Corsan, Film Finance XII, Hwy 61 Films
Cast: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, James Franco, Olivia Wilde, Maria Bello, Kim Basinger, Moran Atias
Director: Paul Haggis
Screenwriter: Paul Haggis
Producers: Paul Breuls, Paul Haggis, Michael Nozik
Executive producer: Guy Tannahill
Director of photography: Gianfilippo Corticelli
Production designer: Laurence Bennett
Music: Dario Marianelli
Editor: Jo Francis
Sales: Corsan World Sales
No rating, 130 minutes.
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