Paul Haggis, the Academy Award-winning writer-director of "Crash," is back in similar territory with "Third Person," another multi-narrative, everyone-is-connected melodrama which unfortunately shares many of the same problems that plagued his ponderously didactic Best Picture winner.
His new film weaves together three separate storylines taking place in three different countries. In the first, an award-winning novelist (Liam Neeson) alternately cavorts and fights with his mistress/protege (Olivia Wilde) in Paris while his wife (Kim Basinger) chain-smokes back at home. In Rome, a corporate spy in the fashion industry (Adrien Brody) flirts with a beautiful illegal Romanian immigrant (Moran Atias), and finds himself getting roped into her attempts to smuggle her young daughter into the country. And finally, in New York City, a frantic former soap opera star (Mila Kunis) battles her artist ex-husband (James Franco) to regain custody of their son after he nearly died as the result of an accident with a dry-cleaning bag while in her care.
Everything builds to the reveal of what it is that connects these stories, but when it finally comes, it arrives with a thud. Haggis telegraphs the climax revelation by sprinkling hints throughout, along with the occasional mysteriously overlapping geography of the stories (flowers left by Neeson's character in his hotel are found by Kunis in New York, etc.). Haggis is at his best when he limits himself to a straightforward, single narrative thread (as with "In the Valley of Elah" or his scripts for "Million Dollar Baby" and "Casino Royale"). Here, he can't contain his penchant for artificial sentimentality and obvious symbolism about "What It All Means," and the storytelling comes across as overly calculated and heavy-handed.
Still, "Third Person" is always compellingly watchable, largely thanks to strong performances from the entire ensemble (Wilde in particular deserves credit for making her manic character seem believable as an actual human being), but the admirable efforts of the actors are sadly undone by clumsily contrived writing and the sense that they're ultimately not playing people so much as mismatched puzzle pieces crammed together to create a picture. Once you step back and take a look, the picture doesn't make a whole lot of sense.