The film opens with Michael (Liam Neeson) in a darkened hotel room, struggling to write his next novel with a bottle of booze and a vial of pills conveniently on hand. Soon enough, he’s joined by Anna (Olivia Wilde), his mercurial, pitilessly cruel lover who’s arrived from across the pond with her own work of fiction for him to assess after a night of passionate lovemaking. Meanwhile in New York, Julia (Mila Kunis) is sparring with her ex (James Franco) over custody of their son, while over in Rome, a clothing-design pirate named Scott (Adrien Brody) strikes up a friendship with a Roma woman named Monika (Moran Atias) over multiple limoncellos and shared stories about their daughters.
It takes a while for these stories to interlock, but anyone familiar with Haggis’s track record knows that they will. The question is whether in the course of “Third Person’s” seemingly interminable running time anyone will particularly care. Filmed on location in some of the world’s handsomest getaway destinations, the movie possesses the polished, understated patina of high-end, arty entertainment. And the performances are consistently impressive, especially Wilde’s spiky, unpredictable mistress, Leeson’s moody author and Kunis’s strung-out young mom, who, due to her own flaws and a conspiracy of outside forces, emerges as the omnibus’s most genuinely tragic figure.
But, as is true with so much of Haggis’s work, “Third Person” suffers from an airless, too-neat lack of connection with organic life. At one point, Michael’s editor criticizes his new book because it’s composed of “random characters making various excuses for your life.” The same could be said for Haggis’s own movie, whose convolutions, contrivances and soapy, middle-brow emotionalism put the lie to outward trappings of sophistication and good taste.
True to its title, “Third Person” feels less like the authentic reflections of an artist wrestling with values and meaning than the idle fantasies of the fervid, self-serving imagination of a master manipulator and plot mechanic.
Alert viewers will twig to Haggis’s larger project when they notice the little details that link his stories; he may retroactively preempt criticism with a facile third-act flourish, putting everything to rights sense-wise, but still leaving viewers less satisfied than mildly intrigued and, finally, deflated.
“Third Person” aims to be singular, but winds up being hoist on its own conceit: Fiction may not be real, but we’re still supposed to believe at least a word of it.
R. At area theaters. Contains profanity, some sexuality and brief nudity. 137 minutes.