Review: 'Third Person' ★ 1/2

Haggis spins dense web of plots and characters

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'Third Person'

Liam Neeson as Michael and Olivia Wilde as Anna in the film "Third Person." (Maria Marin / Sony Pictures Classics / October 18, 2012)

Women! They're all desperate, agitated harpies and relentless sources of internal and external conflict in "Third Person," writer-director Paul Haggis' exasperating multistory drama about how hard it is for a nice, quiet, sensitive guy to be left alone to write an exasperating multistory drama.

Liam Neeson stars as that guy. He's a famous prize-winning author, holed up in a swank Paris hotel room, trying to wrestle his latest novel into shape many drafts after its inception. He has recently left his wife (Kim Basinger as a seething truth-teller) for a recklessly sensual younger woman. Olivia Wilde plays this Molotov cocktail of a muse, hiding a secret that explains her head-case craziness in all the most reductive and insulting ways.

"You have random characters making excuses for your life," the writer's agent tells him. "Third Person" finds Haggis reckoning with his critics and his demons while concocting a story set in three cities about three sets of characters, some of whom are revealed to be connected in some way to others we're following.

Haggis wrote and directed "Crash," which won the best picture Oscar, and there's a structural similarity in the interlocking mechanics of "Third Person." The New York story features Mila Kunis twitching and glaring as a volatile onetime actress fighting for joint custody of her son. James Franco plays her ex. Maria Bello, her legal counsel.

Across the ocean in Rome, meantime, Adrien Brody plays a shady businessman who finds himself in a life-and-death situation with an exotic stranger (Moran Atias) whose child may be threatened with kidnapping and enforced prostitution. Children are exploited everywhere in "Third Person," and Haggis' big moments rely in a somewhat seedy fashion on upping the stakes for those children.

A veteran screenwriter, Haggis has many strengths. He did wonderful genre work as one of the writers on "Casino Royale" (2006). He wrote and directed the fine, undervalued Iraq war drama "In the Valley of Elah" (2007). But often his dramatic situations are as hoked-up and galling as his attenuated writerly flourishes. At one point we hear a line from the Neeson character's novel spoken aloud. "White. The color of trust. It's the color of honesty. And the color of the lies he tells himself." Yes, and it's the color of the blank page where a straighter, truer line should've been written in the first place. How much of what we see in "Third Person" is the novelist's invention is part of the guessing game that goes on and on. And. On.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Third Person" - 1 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)

Running time: 2:17

Opens: Friday

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