What turns a comedy into a drama? It's a good question that Third Person writer-director Paul Haggis would never deign to answer. But it's a question the film raises, and you might come up with a few theories after watching it.
Like his Oscar-winning 2004 film Crash, Third Person is a sprawling and ambitious network narrative powered by pretty people in big cities trying to connect. One story set in NYC follows a downtrodden former soap opera star (Mila Kunis) engaged in a custody battle with her ex-husband, a world-renowned finger painter (WTF?) played by James Franco. A second story, which features a sad-sack corporate lackey (Adrien Brody) who slowly and justifiably grows infatuated with a mysterious beauty he meets in a bar (Moran Atias), takes place in Rome. The third story concerns a successful writer (Liam Neeson), who, when he isn't staring meaningfully at the MacBook on the desk in his gigantic Paris hotel room, is carrying on an affair with a woman (Olivia Wilde) young enough to be his daughter.
As Third Person's stories unfold, a few provocative cross-cuts combine with some odd coincidences and repetitions to suggest a deeper connection among these people.
Wilde, however, stands out. Like Cameron Diaz, Wilde uses her intense, playful sexiness to go two places instead of one; the way she lounges about on couches and beds also heightens her cutting coolness, intelligence, and emotional distance. Wilde's aspiring writer and gossip columnist character may be smarter and more attractive than anyone around her, but even she can't breathe the necessary life into the perfectly sculpted and obviously written dialogue she's given.
When the script's literary aspirations mix with the rough-draft incompleteness of its interpersonal encounters, Third Person's deliberate yet roughed-in feel starts to undermine the weightier moments. Big emotional scenes can't be trusted, and any bite or zip in smaller moments is lost; every meaningful frame, gesture, and slow-motion action sequence starts to look funny. Humorless ambition may be the currency of dictators and football coaches, but it makes for lousy art.
Opens Friday, July 18th
Studio on the Square