"Third Person," the latest interlocking puzzle from Paul Haggis, is about love. But it's not a soft and fuzzy sort of love. As Leona Lewis put it in the pop hit a few years ago, it's the "you cut me open and I keep bleeding, keep keep bleeding" sort. Haggis uses a double-edged sword — and a relatively blunt one at that — to hack away at it.
As the writer-director of the Oscar-winning "Crash" is wont to do, Haggis creates mysteries, raises questions, delves into psyches, and he rarely tidies things up at the end. This film is audacious in that regard. But in blurring the lines between truth and fiction as well as right and wrong, "Third Person" maddens far more than it intrigues. Indeed, more curious than anything about the movie itself is how such an artistic stumble happened.
"Third Person" has an impressive list of players, each representing a pivotal piece of the film's puzzle and each bringing their A game. There are three theaters of operation — the entanglement between Liam Neeson's and Olivia Wilde's characters unfolding in Paris, Adrien Brody and Moran Atias' mismatched pair sparring in Rome and Mila Kunis and James Franco battling it out in New York City.
Thematically it's an interesting premise: to examine the psychological, physical and emotional interplay that goes on as people hurt the ones they love. Significant others certainly take center stage, but the ways in which kids become collateral damage is the film's most consistent and unsettling concern. Dancing around the edges is that ultimate mistress — art — and the hold she has over artists.
It begins in Paris with Michael (Neeson), a celebrated novelist, holed up in a pricey hotel struggling with his latest book. His solution for writer's block is to fly in lover Anna (Wilde) for a tryst, with an occasional call home to Elaine (Kim Basinger), the wife he's left but still relies on for reassurance.
It's nice to see Neeson in a more cerebral role; the only action is between the sheets. He and Wilde are good counterpoints, the distinction more of attitude than age. They make Anna and Michael playful to watch — when they're not wounding each other.
In Wilde's hands, Anna is a mercurial creature, one who keeps you forever guessing which way her mood will swing. The actress is more revealing than ever in this role, and not merely because at one point Anna's left naked and giggling in a hotel hallway, forced to make a mad dash back to her room. It's Wilde's emotional exposure that is so compelling; for a change, she is not a mere accessory.
Rome finds Scott (Brody), an unscrupulous American businessman, scheming to steal the latest clothing designs to peddle back in the States. During a chance encounter at Café Americano, where he's stopped hoping to find a taste of home, he's quickly taken by an Albanian gypsy, perhaps in more ways than the obvious one.
Monika, an excellent Atias, is a ruffled beauty, sharp-tongued and impatient, an intensity that delivers such a jolt it seems to snap Scott, as well as Brody, back to life. It is one of the actor's best performances since his Oscar-winning breakout in 2002's "The Pianist," with Brody embodying the exhilaration and the fear of a man at the mercy of his roiling emotions.
Despite the stakes — Monika owes thugs a great deal of money, her daughter's future is on the line — their flirtations provide "Third Person's" lightest moments, never more so than when Monika is behind the wheel of a "borrowed" car. She attacks Rome's congestion like a Le Mans driver and Scott like an annoying gnat to be brushed away. You will be grateful for the comic relief.
In New York, Kunis plays a former soap opera star. Julia, now reduced to working as a hotel maid, is locked in a bitter custody battle with her ex, rising abstract artist Rick (Franco). Something bad happened and she has not seen her son in two years. Rick's new girlfriend, Sam (Loan Chabanol), has stepped in as the nurturing figure for young Jesse (Oliver Crouch) while the painter paints. Attorney Theresa (Maria Bello), whose personal tragedies will come to light later, represents Julia's nearly lost cause.
Though Kunis is better known for her comic side, most recently opposite Mark Wahlberg and a plush toy in 2012's "Ted," she's only getting better at portraying dark and damaged. That's her perpetual state in "Third Person," though the material doesn't afford her the same depth as her aspiring ballerina in "Black Swan."
Production designer Laurence Bennett, a frequent Haggis collaborator, creates three distinct worlds that nevertheless collide seamlessly when they need to. There is a lush ripeness to the look captured by cinematographer Gian Filippo Corticelli, that sense that like food, things could go bad at any moment. Composer Dario Marianelli, who won an Oscar for his work on "Atonement" in 2008, wraps the doings in a haunting score.
And bad things do happen.
Haggis is a writer first, director second, with a rich collection of work that includes an Oscar for his "Crash" script and nominations for "Million Dollar Baby" and "Letters from Iwo Jima." You feel the script winning the tug of war, and not to good effect. What "Crash," for example, had and what "Third Person" lacks is the connective tissue that ultimately helps everything fall into place. Instead, the film's pieces remain scattered, its puzzle unfinished, its stories half-told.
MPAA rating: R for language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes