Let’s say you gathered all the true film cognoscenti and Oscar mavens you knew around a table groaning with beer and pizza. It might not be very long before the subject of the most undeserving best picture winners in Oscar history came up. And, minutes later, you could count on someone – maybe a chorus of “someones” – offering up Paul Haggis’ “Crash” in 2004 as a prime example of undeserved gold.
I wouldn’t be one of them. Nor do I wish I were. “Crash” – about a community of Angelenos dealing with race with varying degrees of privilege and competence – may have been a kind of up-from-television construction, but I thought it was a hell of a movie. And lest anyone doubt Haggis’ talent, he also later wrote the best of the movies Clint Eastwood has directed, “Million Dollar Baby.”
Haggis’ new movie is “Third Person,” opening Friday. Remember that title if you see the film. You’ll only understand it in the film’s final 10 minutes.
“Third Person” is, similarly, about a community of people who may or may not be interrelated, all struggling with common issues. In this case, the issues are sexual desire, relationships and children that can be lost along the way.
The people are mostly Americans. Most are prosperous, some are not. Some live and work in New York; some are visiting Paris and Rome.
The stories Haggis tells are all romantic – so much so that the movie is virtually an anthology of narrative devices from Victorian fiction and its romantic descendants: coincidences, missed phone calls, lost messages, misunderstood motives, overheard but unacted-upon weepings and discussions. To all manner of things Thomas Hardy and lesser writers might have found a slightly abashed use for, the 21st century has contributed an indispensable bit of new technology – the cellphone with its text messages and its severe phone card allotments of communication time. They provide still more ways that people can be stopped from communicating.
They also provide more ways that people who are being ignored can, nevertheless, get their point across – a text message, for instance, that simply reads “I need you so badly.”
But what you need to know is this: almost every one of the abundant narrative clichés in “Third Person” is followed by some subtlety or Gothic wrench of the plot that you weren’t expecting (or were dreading, if you were expecting it). And at the end, all of the movie is tied together in a way that could have been horrific except that Haggis is enough of a master writer/director that his tone is drier and more intricately structural.
This is a much more sophisticated bit of storytelling than it lets on for more than two thirds of its length.
It’s often frustrating, then, but ultimately becomes extremely satisfying and far more artfully put together than you imagined.
The people we follow are:
Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde, playing American writers having an affair and on surreptitious holiday in Paris. They skirmish wittily, discuss each other’s new work savagely, dance in a club and have rough sex that would have become rape until role-playing is hastily indicated.
Mila Kunis and Maria Bello, playing a screwed-up woman battling for custody of her son and her exasperated attorney, sick of her client’s irresponsibility.
Adrien Brody and Moran Atias, as an American industrial spy in Rome and a woman he meets in a bar hoping to reunite with the young daughter who was taken from her.
Around them in ways we gradually come to know and understand are Kim Basinger, a woman whose face registers a complex mixture of fear and resolve whenever she swims in her pool, and James Franco as a successful painter whose young son seems mysteriously alienated from him.
It all comes together at the end. I don’t think it’s nearly the film that “Crash” was but there’s no doubt in my mind that Haggis has a gift for creating communities that don’t know they’re communities – and for turning narrative clichés into moving stories.
Starring: Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, James Franco, Maria Bello
Director: Paul Haggis
Running time: 137 minutes
Rating: R for nudity, language and sex.
The Lowdown: Interrelated Americans in Paris, New York and Rome struggle with relationships.