Separate but intertwined plotlines can be an effective device when executed cleverly and carefully. But Third Person, the latest film from writer-director Paul Haggis, crumbles under the weight of its own multiple story line ambition. Haggis’s Crash, the 2004 Best Picture Oscar-winning film, was also a tale with multiple threads, but this time, the structure fails to satisfy.
In Third Person, couples in three cities around the globe — New York, Paris, and Rome — mirror each other in their struggles with guilt and trust. But the depth of each plotline suffers, as the three-story juggling act does not allow each plot the time and arc to develop in any satisfying way. The result is three separate stories that jump from lifelessness to high melodrama in a way that is devoid of genuine emotional weight.
Each of the three stories features a shallowly written female lead. Haggis crafts his female characters as simple, damaged, willing victims. In a statement that the writer seems unfortunately attached to, one of his character declares, “Women have the gift of being able to deny any reality." Haggis’s three female leads adhere to this phrase, which serves as an infuriatingly shallow model for a character that, played three times over, becomes insufferable.
Julia (Mila Kunis), a frazzled young mother in the thick of a custody battle with her ex (James Franco), lives in New York. Though she adamantly denies any blame, we later learn that she did indeed injure her son. And so Haggis confirms his earlier statement by presenting a woman denying reality, utterly unable to help herself.
Next, in Paris we have Anna (Olivia Wilde), a writer who becomes the mistress of her mentor (Liam Neeson). She comes off as neurotic, demanding, and above all, damaged. Haggis has a way of oversimplifying her (very serious) suffering until she is only a troubled woman in need of an older man.
Finally, in Rome, Monika (Moran Atias), a beautiful homeless Roma woman, has the most agency in this trio of helpless women — but she uses it to con a wealthy American man (Adrien Brody) into helping her. By the end of the film, she childishly leans into his protection — another story of a damaged woman carried off by an older, wiser, wealthier man.
The eternal triangle
Paul Haggis has said that the movie’s title comes from the idea that there is always a third person in a relationship. This is certainly the case for these couples, whose relationships echo with the guilt that stems from this third person — a spouse, a mistress, a lost child. But the title also implies detachment.
In one manifestation of the distancing device, Anna’s Pulitzer Prize-winning mentor, Michael, keeps a private journal in which he writes about himself in the third person. Another strange example of this removal is the way that Anna and Michael flirt with each other. They call themselves “she” and “he” — a running joke that reveals the real distance between them.
The writing of the film itself suffers from this same kind of detachment, with each plotline and each character falling short. When Haggis ultimately reveals the connection between the three threads, the twist feels empty as well. He waits until the final minutes of the film to reveal a potentially powerful connection, but the revelation is flimsy, rushed, and unsatisfying after such a lengthy film. Third Person underwhelms in its attempt to tie together three separate threads. Its downfall is the very detachment implied by its title.