Philosopher and all-round banter machine Friedrich Nietzsche once famously wrote ‘To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in suffering’. In a way, to watch Paul Haggis latest cinematic effort is also to suffer; but in this case, we find no meaning in suffering through the 137 minutes of this tawdry mess. Returning once again to the multi-layered, fractal narrative format that saw him pick up an Oscar for Crash, writer/ director Paul Haggis tries to open us up to a world that is universal, tied together but also seemingly charged by loneliness and dislocation. In the portrayal of the latter, he has succeeded marvelously, offering up a work that evokes such an indifferent and unfeeling response, sketching characters and settings that push our sentiments towards Nietzsche-esque nihilism. What, one may ask, is the point of it all?
Often the problem when it comes to the fractal narrative lies in the balanced distribution of screen time among the many characters inhabiting the frame; we seem to spend so much time in the company of figures we find difficult to invest in emotionally, and too little with those we find altogether more interesting. Third Person manages to bypass that issue spectacularly by offering an array of characters entirely equal in dullness and vapidity. There’s Liam Neeson as the writer who (wait for it) has difficulty expressing himself to those closest to him, Mila Kunis as the struggling New Yorker separated from her son, and James Franco as the artist who ‘paints with his hands’. So too, it appears, does Haggis, blotting his filmic canvas with hefty clumps of dramatic paint, the work of heavy hands. Olivia Wilde stands as the only figure of substance in a cast of cardboard silhouettes, perhaps only for the underlying darkness of her character. In its fractal state, the film focuses on the inherent consequences of its subjects actions; it is unfortunate, and ironic, then, that we should care so little for these consequences or, indeed, the film as a whole.
What Third Person adds up to is a clumsily orchestrated exercise in emotional masturbation. Moments of tinnily fabricated catharsis eventually overrun each strain of the film, leaving its final act to sit atop a dramatic crescendo of laughable proportions. Shots of James Franco dragging a ragged Mila Kunis across a floor, slow-moed for added intensity, garner more giggles than gravitas and mark a comedic peak that director Paul Haggis probably did not intend. Elsewhere, a bemused Liam Neeson wanders Rome’s narrow streets with the look of a man in desperate search of his acting career. And capping-off all that disappointment is a concluding plot twist better suited to the pages of a middling Junior Cert. English student. Conveniently, it’s a twist that could justify Third Person‘s unrelenting blandness in urging us to reflect on everything gone before and observe the film a little differently. But the stiffness of the story prevents any such altered reaction. Nothing changes. Nothing can change. And so runs the world away.