Friday, July 18, 2014

Third Person: Provocative points of view

Third Person (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, nudity and sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.18.14

Writer/director Paul Haggis’ film is too long, too self-indulgent and often too precious.

That said, it’s also intriguing, mysterious, and oddly compelling. And, to a degree, there’s a reason for the many contrivances. Whether the “ultimate answer” justifies the prolonged journey, however, will be up to the taste — and tolerance — of the individual viewer.

Monika (Moran Atias) angrily refuses to share a hotel room with Scott (Adrien Body), and
accusing him of "the obvious" motivations; she chooses instead to make the best of a
bench at the railway station. Of course, this just amplifies Scott's protective instincts, so
he follows and winds up keeping her company for the entire night.
Haggis is a seasoned writer, having cut his teeth on various TV dramas before leaping to the big screen with several high-profile assignments with Clint Eastwood: Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and most particularly Million Dollar Baby, the latter two garnering Oscar nominations. Haggis also helped revive the James Bond franchise by collaborating on the gritty scripts for Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

Most notably, though, Haggis is known for taking home twin Academy Awards for 2004’s Crash, a victory that remains controversial to this day. Some Best Picture Oscar winners are universally embraced; others divide movie buffs into polarized camps. Crash belongs to the latter group, its interlinked storylines alternately praised as insightful social commentary or ridiculed as puerile left-wing twaddle.

Third Person is an equally personal film that employs a similar template of seemingly disconnected narratives that slide in and around each other. The crossovers aren’t as direct as those in, say, Babel, Love Actually or even Crash; sometimes it’s no more than two people passing each other in a hotel hallway, Haggis’ camera using that excuse to shift quietly from one point of view to the other.

Except that there is more going on here, as we eventually discover.

Perhaps sensitive to the warring camps he created with Crash, Haggis avoids even a whiff of political content this time, focusing instead on interpersonal relationships and issues of trust. All the characters here are in various stages of flirtation, love or rejection, their behavior determined by anger, frustration and impatience.

And by hope. Hope for understanding; hope that things will get better; hope that past transgressions can be surmounted, catalogued and forgiven.

Julia (Mila Kunis) can’t get her life together, much to the vexation of her attorney, Theresa (Maria Bello). Forever between jobs and frequently down to pocket change, Julia nonetheless hopes to regain visitation rights with the 6-year-old son living full-time with his father Rick (James Franco), a famed New York artist, and his girlfriend Sam (Loan Chabanol). We’ve no idea what Julia did, to be shunned so thoroughly by her ex; her flakiness alone doesn’t seem sufficient cause for such total banishment.

Scott (Adrian Brody), a “fashion spy” thoroughly disenchanted by his current visit to Italy, is drawn into the plight of Monika (Moran Atias), a hot-tempered Roma woman trying to ransom her younger daughter from a human trafficker. But as the days pass, this situation’s increasing complications prompt Scott to wonder whether he’s the patsy in an elaborate con game, even though he desperately wishes to believe the best of his new female companion.

Finally, Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author Michael (Liam Neeson) has sequestered himself in a posh Parisian hotel suite, hoping to finish a book that he suspects is going nowhere. He’s constantly distracted by his tempestuous lover, Anna (Olivia Wilde), a young journalist with her own ambitions for publishing fame; he also remains connected, if only tangentially, to Elaine (Kim Basinger), the estranged wife left behind at their home in the States.

Darker secrets also punctuate these situations. Each night, before bed, Scott listens to an old phone message from his young daughter. Theresa, haunted by some memory, can’t swim in her own pool. Something ... massive ... led to Michael’s estrangement from Elaine. Anna keeps getting phone calls from somebody whose very presence clearly unsettles her. And exactly what did Julia do, to earn Rick’s inflexible wrath?

Most of the performances are strong, although two of the three narratives are far more engaging. We’re most drawn to Scott’s plight, since Brody’s woebegone features suggest depths of misery that cry out for a balancing positive event in his life. Trouble is, Monika is anything but a cleansing force, her subtle manipulations merely reinforcing Scott’s mounting suspicions.

He wants to take her at face value, somehow needs to. And yet, as the anguish builds in Brody’s expressive eyes over time, he fears that he has hitched his emotional tether to the wrong dark horse.

Atias deftly plays up her character’s ambiguity, leaving us with the same questions. Does Monika’s temper spring solely from the reflexive prejudice she suffers, as a Roma woman? Are we, as viewers, guilty of the same racial profiling that bedevils Scott? Or are our suspicions as valid as his? Atias, unerringly flashing a note of vulnerability each time it’s needed, offers no quick or easy answers.

The erotic byplay between Michael and Anna vacillates between sensual and irritating, the latter due to her instability. At times, their relationship seems to exist solely in a world of flirty role-playing, exacerbated by his tendency to discuss their provocatively playful banter in the third person, as befits his occupation as a writer (hence this film’s title). They tease each other mercilessly, particularly when it comes to sex; one droll carnal encounter begins when Anna shows up outside Michael’s hotel door, wearing only a white robe.

On the other hand, Anna frequently turns on Michael, quite cruelly switching off her playful charm. Is she justified, self-conscious as the “other woman” who always takes second place when Michael receives a call from his wife? Or is something darker tugging at Anna’s stability? Wilde delivers a nicely shaded performance that is leagues better than her pop-tart work in the likes of TRON: Legacy or Cowboys & Aliens: her first role that demands she be taken seriously as an actress.

Like Brody’s Scott, Neeson’s Michael carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, whether struggling with his novel, or trying to navigate his lover’s volatility. Michael’s go-to response to both situations is long-suffering patience, which Anna regards as insincere: just more authorial artifice. We sense that’s unfair, because Neeson’s gaze carries genuine pain.

Or is it true, as both Anna and Elaine insist, that Michael has become incapable of experiencing actual emotions, having somehow cut himself off?

Questions, questions. Credit where due, Haggis keeps all these plates spinning pretty well, even as we grow impatient and wish for resolutions.

The situation with Julia and Rick is less persuasive, mostly because both Kunis and Franco aren’t very interesting. Try as he might, Franco can’t make Rick more than smug and detached; our one exposure to his parenting skills reveal a guy who knows nothing about being a father.

We’re intended to pity Julia, having lost everything in her hapless struggle to regain the ground under her feet ... but Kunis too often comes off as whiny and self-absorbed. There’s also an oddly touching scene between Julia and Sam: an encounter weighted with the suggestion of — something — but which goes nowhere.

Basinger and Bello phone in their performances (pun intended, since both spend most of their screen time on the phone); we never get a sense of who they are, as people, aside from the fact that they’re also emotionally damaged.

As for what’s actually going on ... well, it is a mystery, and like all “fair” mysteries, clues abound. One particularly telling comment comes from Michael’s publisher and longtime friend, Jake (a brief but richly shaded performance by David Harewood). Then there’s the off-camera whisper that Michael hears, as a memory: a little boy saying “Watch me...” (a phrase that figures prominently on this film’s poster, so you know it must be important).

The production credits are uniformly excellent, with strong kudos going to cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli, for his nifty tracking shots, and the “hand-offs” from one narrative to the next; and to composer Dario Marianelli, for a rich orchestral score that often employs source sounds — like the typewriter, in his score for 2007’s Atonement — to augment the blending of character themes, while moving between storylines. Indeed, Marianelli’s music often drives the film, and our interest, as much as any of the individual characters.

As for the final reveal ... well, you’ll either find it ingeniously clever, and be inspired to watch the whole film again; or you’ll roll your eyes and dismiss it as absurd and annoying. I’m in the former camp; I’d happily embrace a second viewing, this time to concentrate more on the performances, while not being distracted by trying to suss out the mystery.

I suspect, however, that most viewers will wind up bored and irritated. Which is a shame, because — at the very least — Haggis deserves credit for provocative storytelling.

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