Paul Haggis’ Third Person feels like a prank. Specifically, the kind of prank that identical teenage twins pull when they, say, switch classes for an afternoon or send one on another’s date. The film is relatively straightforward at first—at least, as straightforward as a multithread, attention-yanking story can be. But then it morphs into a head-scratching gimmick that takes identity-switching and plugs it into the formula of Haggis’—sigh—Best Picture Oscar–winning Crash. And everyone outside the Academy knows that was a disaster.
Third Person doesn’t take long to get you rooting against it. Michael (Liam Neeson), a novelist, is sitting at a laptop in a Parisian hotel room with his smokes and liquor and pills. Anna (Olivia Wilde), another writer, is also staying at the hotel. Based on their initial encounter, their relationship is more than professional yet prickly at best, and perhaps its romantic aspect is largely in the past.
In New York, meanwhile, Julia (Mila Kunis, her heavy eye makeup kinda smeared and her luscious hair slightly mussed), has lost custody of her son because of allegations that she harmed him. Yet this former soap actress, now dirt poor, can’t get her shit together enough to show up to hearings on time or at least not look like a somewhat less glamorous Mila Kunis when she does. At one point, she tells her lawyer, Theresa (Maria Bello), that she’s “almost out of minutes,” which anyone who’s ever had to buy a phone card will understand. “I don’t know what that means,” Theresa responds.
Then, in Italy, Scott (Adrian Brody), a shady, successful businessman, meets Gina (Katy Louise Saunders), in a bar. She’s apparently familiar with the surly bartender, leaves in a huff, and forgets her bag—and then the game’s afoot. Gina has already told Scott that she’s seeing her daughter for the first time in years the next day, and later accuses him of stealing money from her bag when she returns for it. He gives her the amount she’s missing, for reasons involving his own experience with tragedy.
But each of Third Person’s threads is a mess, with class differences being the predominant theme (Julia’s baby daddy, played by James Franco, is a rich artist; Julia’s lawyer has never heard of prepaid phones; Gina has scrimped and saved, or maybe scammed, to see her daughter again, while Scott spits out cash like an ATM). Fucked-up romantic entanglements are a close second. Michael and Anna’s relationship is so infuriating (he’s a jerk, she loves it, then she’s mad, then he grovels) that “it’s complicated” was never a more apt description, and when she strays—well, the person you suspect she once spent an afternoon in bed with turns out to be a smart guess. Strained marriages, child endangerment, and actors who look awfully alike also factor in.
Are you exhausted yet? Haggis, who also wrote the script, has one big problem here: You won’t care about any of these idiots. Many of the characters do stupid things, all of the actors overemote, and the melodrama is generally unbearable. We get it: People fuck up, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. Marriages may crumble because of it. The rich never quite understand the poor, or else they feel so sorry for them they willingly play the sucker. I’m probably missing something, but good god, isn’t that enough? Third Person is an inadequate title for what Haggis vomited onscreen. He should have called it Crash and Burn.