In "Third Person," the latest collection of intertwined stories from writer-director Paul Haggis, Liam Neeson plays Michael, a writer living in Paris. Other people swirl through his life and through this movie, though not all are in the same time zone. Some may not even be real. Michael's publisher, Jake (David Harewood), isn't impressed with the new manuscript. "You have random characters making excuses for your life," he says. "Frankly, I was embarrassed to read it."
It's tempting to use Haggis' own words against him here. "Third Person" is such a solipsistic, navel-gazing creation that it seems to have barely made it out of Haggis' mind and onto the screen. That may be exactly what this meta-movie is going for, considering that one character has its opening credits hanging in his apartment. Despite a score of fine performances and several effective scenes, however, "Third Person" never feels real, believable or even slightly meaningful.
Haggis, who won two Oscars for threading random characters together in "Crash" (2004), is such a skilled filmmaker that "Third Person" seems initially intriguing. How, you wonder, will the movie connect Michael's volatile lover (Olivia Wilde) and ex-wife (Kim Basinger) with a distraught mother in New York (Mila Kunis) and her lawyer (Maria Bello)? What about the successful artist (James Franco) and his girlfriend (Loan Chabanol)?
"Third Person" doesn't connect them at all, actually, except by having one or two cross paths. Several motifs (water, children, flowers) also create an illusion of coherence. The visuals are lush and the tone profound, but don't be fooled: "Third Person" is hoping that you, the viewer, will be moved by squishy notions of cosmic oneness and humankind. After all, aren't we really just one big story?
Maybe, but that's not what a movie, or almost any kind of storytelling, is for. Why are we following these particular stories, these particular people? "Third Person" doesn't seem to know and never gives us a reason to care.
PLOT Several stories intertwine as a writer finishes his latest novel.
CAST Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, Mila Kunis
BOTTOM LINE Another collection of disparate scenes masquerading as a meditation on humanity from writer-director Paul Haggis ("Crash").