Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash) raises navel-gazing to an art form with Third Person, a Crash-y, borderline trashy entry in the genre of global interlocking stories. Those who scoffed at Crash will have even more to sniff at here, and the Best Picture's defenders may think twice after slogging through Third Person's 137 minutes (Haggis also directs and produces).
Holding the film's center is Liam Neeson, as Pulitzer-winning fiction writer Michael. Having recently split with his wife Elaine (Kim Basinger), Michael carries on with journalist and aspiring author Anna (Olivia Wilde) in his Parisian hotel suite, even as he struggles with exploiting the lives of his loved ones (and himself) as fodder for his art. The film is at its best, and most comfortable in this milieu, with its most obvious Haggis surrogate in Michael.
Meanwhile, in Rome, sarcastic small-time businessman Scott (Adrien Brody) plays the part of ugly American, seeking comfort food at the "Café Americano." There he befriends--or becomes the mark for--a beautiful Roma woman named Monika (Moran Atias), who eventually spills that she's desperate for cash to ransom her eight-year-old daughter from traffickers. In Third Person's New York story, former soap actress Julia (Kunis) nears the end of her rope as she takes her last shot at resolving a child custody case hinging on an allegation of child abuse. The father of her six-year-old child, ex-husband (and aspiring artist) Rick (James Franco) won't give an inch to Julia or her sympathetic lawyer Theresa (Maria Bello).
Did I mention that Scott and Michael also have (or had?) young children? The stories all rhyme in circumstances and themes, in ways that will drive some viewers up the wall. To a one, these are damaged people tying to overcome their own deep-seated flaws and break down the defenses of those they want to love. At times, Haggis's stylistic choices feel cliched, from the faux-Philip Glass of the opening montage to the slo-mo and Euro-accordion that introduce Monika. But it's also possible it's all part of Haggis's game in a film that immediately begs the question "Alright, what is he playing at?" The puzzle-piece structure eventually makes a picture, or at least reveals the gimmick.
Figuratively and literally, Third Person is as much about the writer's process as anything else (Haggis self-deprecatingly winks at the audience when Michael's agent opines "Now you have random characters making various excuses for your life"). But the tasteful austerity of style and solid performances can't overcome a script that largely stands between emotional humanity and the viewer. The sense of intellectual remove can be conceptually interesting, but it makes for a very long, often frustrating journey to a destination not a fraction as appealing as New York, Paris, or Rome.