Take half a dozen roughly equal characters in three nations, shuffle them through overlapping episodes of strife, and season with a dash of mystical coincidence. Garnish with symbolism and serve. I admire the ambition, ingenuity and craftsmanship at work in “Third Person.” The look of the film is gorgeous, the actors inhabit their roles convincingly, and its artistic aims are higher than most. Still, I can’t endorse the self-consciously clever result.
The title has multiple meanings. On one level it reflects the tripod design of the tale. On another it reflects the idea that in every couple’s relationship there’s at least one phantom hovering at the edges.
Setting aside his Glock, Liam Neeson takes the role of a once-successful novelist on sabbatical from his American wife (Kim Basinger). He’s in Paris ostensibly to get some important writing done. In fact, he’s dallying with his protégée and mistress (Olivia Wilde), a muse whose overwhelming beauty just about balances her emotional instability. Jump cut to Adrien Brody as an American executive in Rome, gradually falling for a tempestuous Gypsy beauty (Moran Atias) with a tale of woe whose details are suspiciously hard to verify. Jump once more to Manhattan, where James Franco and Mila Kunis play an artistic couple locked in a tumultuous custody battle for their young son.
Appealing performers, intriguing situations. Writer/director Paul Haggis (an Oscar-winner for “Crash”) stir-fries these tantalizing ingredients at great length. Key characters lose something of value underwater. A distinctively dressed motorcycle rider appears on the streets of each far-flung city. A tracking shot begun on one continent ends on another.
Each couple’s story hinges on crucial issues of trust. The story comes into focus gradually, but it’s evident the characters are somehow corresponding alter egos.
Haggis makes us wait ages for the how and why. Instead, he directs our attention to the hothead humor of Brody’s predicament, as the slick executive follows his shifty siren into ever deeper trouble with criminal roughnecks. Then he returns us to Neeson’s pensive suffering and evasive long-distance calls home, and the almost sadistic strife between Kunis and Franco.
It’s not a sloppy film; it’s over-schematic. Even random details, like the perennially wet, straight-from-the shower look of family court lawyer Maria Bello’s hair has a thematic meaning. But it’s all too much. Too many principal and even secondary characters battle for center screen, too many lives are displayed in excessive foreshortening. Haggis delays showing his cards until his tale feels like a parlor trick gone on too long.