Paul Haggis has had such a curious career, it’s no wonder he seems to make movies with no regard for fashion or demographics. The Canadian-born filmmaker labored for years as a TV writer/producer before scripting two successive Best Picture Oscar winners, Million Dollar Baby and Crash (he also directed the latter). He then co-wrote a couple of James Bond pictures and the somber Iraq War movie In the Valley of Elah, and caused a rumpus in 2011 by loudly resigning his longtime membership in Scientology.
Someone with a resume like this—did we mention he also created Walker, Texas Ranger?—likely has little left to prove. That might explain the untethered quality of Third Person, which Haggis wrote and directed. On first glance, the film appears to follow the Crash course of interlocking stories, but closer inspection suggests something much odder going on. We can’t reveal too much on that score, but at the center of the movie is a novelist (Liam Neeson) hard at work on a new manuscript. He’s holed up in a Paris hotel after a traumatic incident, his mistress (Olivia Wilde) in a nearby room and his wife (Kim Basinger) back home in the States. We also watch a tale set in Rome, where a shady businessman (Adrien Brody) gets ensnared in a human-trafficking scenario involving a single mother (the impressive Moran Atias). And there’s a Manhattan story, in which a hapless hotel maid (Mila Kunis) fights for shared custody of her son with an angry ex (James Franco, listless).
The latter story is by far the weakest; it feels necessary only to triangulate the main theme. The Rome tale has some authentic intrigue, and it’s good to see Brody (something of a wanderer since his Oscar for 2002’s The Pianist) given a shot to play to his strengths: His character is smart, self-righteous, a little oily. (As in Haggis’ other films as director, the acting is variable from performer to performer.)
There’s some refreshingly grown-up play between Neeson and Wilde, who pull flirtatious pranks on each other as he tries to dodge her questions about her own writing. The story threads take too long to gather, and the concept behind their co-existence is both enigmatic and a little thin for everything we’ve just sat through (it would make a decent short story, though). Haggis earns chutzpah points, at least, for bucking Hollywood’s shameless pandering to the youth market: He betrays no hint of gearing Third Person toward any audience other than himself.
Opens Fri., July 11 at Sundance. Rated R. 137 minutes.