The new Paul Haggis film involves scheming, lots of scheming.
When a screenwriter-turned-director snags numerous Oscar nods in one year alone, it’s not surprising that they’ll try to sweep the Academy Awards with ambitious films again and again. But when that director is Paul Haggis—the white guy famous for 2004’s Crash, his deeply problematic and dubiously dubbed “progressive” film on racism—each continued effort is heartily dreaded. Haggis has had plenty more commercial success with films like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, but his latest attempt, Third Person, likely won’t even be able say that much.
Stylistically similarly to Crash, Haggis loosely intertwines a star-studded cast and uneventfully reveals their connections to one another in the last five minutes of the film. Our minds are supposed to be blown, but unlike successful proprietors of this admittedly tricky story structure, his reveals are extremely contrived and lackluster. Also similarly to Crash, Third Person weaves in and out of its numerous main characters so rapidly that they all feel flat and uninteresting. When the dramatic plot twists come, they feel distant and half-hearted. But in the very limited time we have to develop any emotional attachments to the characters, Haggis never fails to pull out all of the wild cards in hopes of confusing the heck out of you last minute. There are floods of scams and infidelity and surprise incest and tons of deceit. The deep message Third Person hammers home seems to be, “Hey! Did you know people really are screwed up?”
What’s more frustrating than the wacky plot devices, though, is how poorly women and people of color are portrayed throughout the film. Women? They’re all unstable, hormonal messes, defined only by the men around (or on top of) them. The main character trait of Julia (Mila Kunis) is some vague psychological “problems,” which the audience knows about because she pops mystery pills, is frequently tardy, and constantly deflects blame. Her ex-partner, smug and aggressive artist, Rick (James Franco), is manipulative and even physically assaults Julia—at which his very silent, meekly depicted new partner, Sam (Loan Chabanol), seems unphased. Sam herself is so disturbingly one-dimensional that she hardly even seems human and drifts in the shadows of frames. Was Haggis was making a statement about how our society silences women’s voices? Sadly, probably not.
Mila Kunis’ character Julia has “mental problems” that are never deeply explored.
Throughout Third Person, the female characters are weak and seem to exist only to flesh out the roles of the men that they are connected to. One of the film’s most central characters, Anna (Olivia Wilde) is the classically cutthroat and bitchy sexual object who just needs a wonderful man to show her what love really means! She has outbursts and is clearly outwardly cold because she has so many internal emotional problems. When her much-hinted-at terrible secret is revealed, her on-again-off-again lover Michael (Liam Neeson) showers her with his undying love and understanding—only to use her story for fodder in his latest novel. Like everything else in the film, when major life trauma—like abuse and incest—are revealed, they are quickly glossed over and treated as just another zany plot twist.
Another major issue with Third Person is that the film contains virtually no characters of color. The film is set in an eerily white world, which is bizarre considering that a larger part of the film takes place in New York City. The only people of color in the film are in the subservient roles of maids and thieves, except for David Harewood, who has a small role playing a tough-love publisher of former Pulitzer-winner and major douchebag Michael. When Michael turns in a manuscript, Harewood’s character tells it to him straight: “You have random characters making excuses for your life. Frankly, I was embarrassed to read it.” The “random character” barb felt a too close-to-home in this film full of shallow roles. The fact that this very minor character is the only example of a non-stereotypical depiction of a person of color only further proves that Haggis hasn’t learned shit about how to actually challenge typecasting since he made Crash.
Bottom line is that Third Person is yet another film made for a lot of money that’s just not very smart or original. Many critics agree that Third Person is crappy, yet instead of honing in on how the film is a true disservice to minority characters, they glaze over how blatantly white-washed and male-centric the film is, and instead focus on just the “technical” stuff. Well, if it’s a technical angle Paul Haggis needs in order to understand how to make a good film, he should take a crash course in anti-oppressive screenwriting for next time. In the meantime, take it from me and don’t waste your time with this one.
Read more film reviews: The Surprising Emotional Core of The Fault in Our Stars.
Emilly Prado is a former Bitch editorial and new media intern and graduate of Portland State University. When not writing for various publications, she snaps street fashion pics for Willamette Week, partakes in a day job, and uses the internet far too much. Find her on Twitter at @_ahoramismo.