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updated: 6/27/2014 1:57 PM

Haggis' 'Third Person' a crash course in ambitious drama

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  • Video: Paul Haggis interview

  • Michael (Liam Neeson) shares a flirtatious moment with Anna (Olivia Wilde) in Paul Haggis' ambitious drama "Third Person."

    Michael (Liam Neeson) shares a flirtatious moment with Anna (Olivia Wilde) in Paul Haggis' ambitious drama "Third Person."


"Watch me."

A disembodied child's voice utters this during the opening scene of Paul Haggis' interlocked trilogy "Third Person." We hear the words as a novelist named Michael (Liam Neeson) sits at a dark and lonely desk.

"Watch me."

We do not yet understand the context of this imperative, but I suspect that it serves a dual purpose: It's not only a reference to a character we never see, it's also Haggis' way of warning us to pay close attention to the story about to unfold, for nothing will be served up in easily digestible dramatic tidbits as we are used to receiving in Hollywood's standard-issue summer movies.

"Third Person" makes a maddeningly terrible summer movie. It poses unanswered questions, withholds crucial information and rejects commercial blockbuster elements, save perhaps for an eye-poppingly naked Olivia Wilde wildly racing through hotel hallways.

Yet, I suspect that Haggis, who won back-to-back Oscars for writing "Million Dollar Baby" (2004) and "Crash" (2005), is pushing here, challenging himself as both a writer and a director to -- forgive the sports metaphor -- bat one into the nosebleed section of the stands.

But "Third Person" doesn't quite make it onto third base.

"Third Person" interlocks three stories of three people, usually couples with a third-party presence.

No. 1: In France, Neeson's Michael, a successful novelist, struggles to write his second book, and has taken to incorporating everything and everyone around him for inspiration.

Wilde plays Anna, Michael's beguiling lover and one of his former writing students. She and Michael engage in an erotically sadistic game of one-upmanship and control.

Occasionally, they're interrupted by a call from Michael's despondent wife (Kim Basinger), who accuses her husband of not loving people. "You love love," she tells him.

No. 2: Scott (Adrien Brody) works as a fashion design pirate. While in Rome, he becomes captivated by an erotically charged gypsy, a Roman named Monika (Moran Atias), attempting to buy freedom for her young daughter whom we never actually see. Does she even exist?

No. 3: In New York, a flighty former soap star named Julia (Mila Kunis) desperately works through her attorney (Maria Bello) to secure visitation rights to see her young son. But her painter/artist ex-husband (James Franco) blocks her efforts at every turn, fearing Julia to be a threat to their son's safety.

In Haggis' ambitious, highly personal screenplay, these three mini-stories serve as jazz riffs off a single theme, all united by domestic tragedies that are best left for viewers to discover for themselves.

Haggis has assembled a Grade-A cast with stars who bring their characters to gritty, honest life on the screen. But they are stuck inside a story that eventually experiences a "Crash" under its heavy-handed, overthought structure.

We suspect that Haggis will eventually connect all the narrative dots, and all our questions will be answered.

They are. But he waits too long, and by the time the jigsaw puzzle pulls together, the payoff is hardly on a "Luke and Leia are siblings!" level for a 136-minute soap operatic drama.

I wanted to like "Third Person" much more than I finally did. Haggis skillfully (with editor Jo Francis) juxtaposes clever transitions between scenes. (A shot of a man chasing an elusive woman cuts to another scene in which a man chases an elusive woman.)

But these devices soon become more showy than illuminating, reducing the overall impact of Haggis' admirable attempt by at least a third.

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