We meet Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde — the two stars of “Third Person” — inside an upscale hotel in Paris.She knocks on the door to his room, and he seems pleased to see her…Or is he? They tease each other, blowing hot and cold, crackling with electricity, until she eventually joins him in bed. It’s a great scenethat draws us in: There is so much in this couple’s past that we can sense but notyet imagine.
Michael, played by Neeson, is an author who is drinking too much, stuck on his new novel and haunted by whatever it was that led him to leave his wife (Kim Basinger). Anna (Wilde) likes to think she was the reason; she’s feisty and tempestuous, and also a writer, who’s looking for a critique of her new work from her Pulitzer Prize-winning lover. But both have secrets they’re not telling: Michael is haunted by a voice, while Anna is getting mysterious texts from what seems to be another lover.
Director Paul Haggis (“Crash,” “The Next Three Days”) intercuts this story with two others. We find Julia (Mila Kunis), a recently divorced mother who is accused by her ex-husband Rick (James Franco), a wealthy artist, of trying to harm their son — an incident she insists was an accident. Traumatized by the whole thing, she is working as a hotel maid while Rick opposes her attempts to win visitation rights to her son. Julia is having a hard time keeping it together, which makes us wonder: Is Rick right about her mental instability?
The third strand finds Adrian Brody as Scott, a sleazy American businessman in Rome, stealing fashion designs that he sells to knockoff brands. He is near the end of his trip when he meets Monika (Moran Atias), a mysterious and voluptuous Roman woman sitting alone at a bar. She has trouble written all over her, but he listens to a sob story she tells about people smugglers who are holding her daughter until she pays off a debt. And he falls for it. Scott has a feeling it may be a scam, but he decides to trust her and hope for the best. Is he naive, does he want to get into her pants, or is he driven by a deeper reason?
As “Third Person” progresses, we wonder how these three stories are going to tie together. Haggis weaves the connections in so slyly it will be late in the game before you see what he’s up to; some people probably won’t, but that’s not Haggis’ fault. The connection between the three stories turns out to be a past tragedy, so similar it can’t be coincidence — follow that thought and you’ll find the key to the film.
All Haggis’ characters tell stories: Monica has her ever more elaborate — and expensive (for Scott) — tale of a missing daughter; Julia, her tearful explanation of what really happened to her son on that day when no one else was around; and Michael, who’s writing stories that are increasingly distanced from what he’s really feeling.
“Third Person” is ultimately about spinning fictions. “We fool ourselves into thinking we can create in a vacuum, but life keeps coming in,” as Haggis told The Japan Times in a recent interview.