As he did in Crash, the Los Angeles-set drama about race, paranoia, and dread that won the 2005 best-picture Oscar, Paul Haggis puts a disparate (and often desperate) cast of characters to work in Third Person. Paths don't cross in the same physical way that they did in Crash, but in Third Person, the writer and director maps out a series of scenarios that eventually has everyone bumping into, if not one another, at least shared tragedies and woes.
You can tell that Haggis - who wrote and directed the Russell Crowe jailbreak thriller The Next Three Days and the Iraq war veterans drama In the Valley of Elah, and whose screenplay credits include Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, and Casino Royale - has spent too much time in hotels. In Third Person, Liam Neeson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist holed up in a five-star Paris hostelry, trying to write his new book. Olivia Wilde checks into the same hotel. She, too, is a writer, a protege of Neeson's Michael, and his lover, the woman who wrecked his marriage.
Over in Rome, Adrien Brody is a shady American who deals in stolen couture designs. He is in a hotel, too, and in a funk. He hates Italy and wants to be done with his business and be gone. But when he strays into the out-of-the-way Cafe Americano, thinking he'll find a taste of home, he instead finds a brooding Roma woman, Monika (Moran Atias). She is hoping to reunite with her young daughter - she says she has saved up thousands to pay the gangster smuggling her into the country. Before Third Person is over, Brody and Atias will be sharing a hotel bed, too.
In New York, Mila Kunis, playing a onetime soap actress whose life has tumbled into despair, gets a job making hotel beds. She's a maid, dusting, vacuuming, fluffing pillows. She's in a custody battle with her ex, a celebrated artist (James Franco) who, for reasons that become clear, is adamant that she not be allowed to see their little boy.
If Crash was about racial tensions and class, Third Person is about room service and concierges.
The title Third Person works on a couple of levels. It refers to the third person in a couple's life - the son, or daughter, who figures so profoundly in a parent's world. But the title also alludes to the writer's craft - Michael, clacking out paragraphs in a narrative voice of "hes" and "shes" and "theys."
It should be noted that Michael's novel-in-progress isn't very good. He is haunted by his great early success as an author, and each subsequent book has fallen a notch. This latest is proving an especial struggle.
Third Person isn't very good, either. No fault of the actors - Neeson and Wilde, Brody and Atias, Kunis and Franco, they are all working with resolve, trying to get at their respective roles' inner lives. On the periphery (and frequently on the phone), Kim Basinger, Maria Bello, and Loan Chabanol add moments of misery, empathy, reprimand.
As Haggis switches back and forth between New York and Paris and Rome, folding his segues as neatly as Kunis folds the corners of hotel bedsheets, Third Person falls into a kind of fugue state. The lines between characters become blurred, their respective losses and heartbreaks dissolving into a melancholy vapor.
Or vapidity. Take your pick.
Third Person **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Paul Haggis. With Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, James Franco, Maria Bello, Mila Kunis, Moran Atias. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 2 hours, 17 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five and Carmike Ritz Center/NJ.