Paul Haggis ("Crash") pens and directs another tapestry-like film. "Third Person" sprawls across Paris, Rome (and other Italian locales), and New York; in each of these locales, men struggle with their feelings and their women.
A flurry of introductory scenes ushers the viewer into the worlds of these people, all of them played by marquee names. In Paris, a famed novelist named Michael gazes into a glass of water, where he's dropped a coin; in a New York suburb, lawyer Theresa hesitates at the edge of her pool; in the city proper, Julia (Mila Kunis) splashes water onto her face, her sink crowded with prescription medication bottles (much as is Michael's desk); and, in some uncertain place, Michael's estranged wife Elaine (Kim Basinger) hurls her phone into the kitchen sink by accident, shorting it out.
Dampness plays a recurring role here, as do issues of trust. A little later, Michael's lover Anna (Olivia Wilde), for whom he's left Elaine, ponders giving him the gift she's brought with her -- a fancy wristwatch. Instead, she gives it a good dunking. In Rome, things are considerably dryer, and hotter, to the discomfort of Scott (Adrien Brody), a fashion industry spy who's only in town to buy some upcoming designs illicitly. When Scott stops by the "Caf American," where the surly barkeep speaks no English, the only relief he finds from the purgatorial heat is a few glasses of limoncello, which he drinks in the awkward company of a Romanian barfly named Monika (Moran Atias). His cooling-off period is brief, however, and he's soon embroiled in Monika's frantic attempts to reclaim her daughter from the clutches of men who deal in human cargo. But is Scott drawn to her desperate situation because he's fallen in love with her hard-shelled exterior (similar, in many ways, to that of Michael's flame Anna)? Or because he's trying to make up for the shambles his own domestic life has become --and from which his only solace is a much-outdated voice mail from his own young daughter?
Another child is caught in a custody battle between famed painter Rick (James Franco) and the luckless Julia, whom Rick accuses of endangering with a dry-cleaning bag. (She insists that their young son was playing with the bag and she had to give him an object lesson in the danger into which he was putting himself.) Julia, unable to match Rick's fame and money, becomes a victim of the court system; it doesn't help that she's disorganized and desperately short on cash. Trying to balance custody hearings with a new job, Julia receives a call from her lawyer -- Theresa --informing her of a change in time and venue for a psychiatric evaluation. "I'm almost out of minutes," she gasps, searching for pen and paper so as to scribble down the address.
"I don't know what that means," the well-heeled Theresa snaps. The infuriating thing is, Theresa is the closest Julia has to an ally; everyone else, including the court-appointed psychiatrist, has written her off (without even meeting her, in the shrink's case). Later on, it becomes clear why Theresa is so hard on Julia, but a lot of things become clear, including how these disparate, widely-dispersed people are connected to one another.
Clear, that is, and also not so clear. This is a movie that deliberately challenges and provokes us, bending and blurring reality in ways that start out as subtle and then progress to outlandish. Exactly how much of this to swallow, and how much to laugh off is up to the individual; any or all of what we're seeing might have more than one interpretation. The pity is that by the time we realize what's afoot, it's hard to care, and not only because of the voice in the back of one's mind noting that this is the sort of thing David Lynch did so much better. Such comparisons aside, the main object has long since become a matter of keeping irritation and boredom at bay, and not even the film's escalating series of shocks can pull one back into the envelope of storytelling magic a movie is supposed to provide. If anything, the effect is rather the opposite: This is a film that pushes us away.
When we end at more or less the same place we began, having got an earful about "the color of trust," and deception, and "the lies he told himself," and having just watched how these people drag themselves and each other through excoriating gamut of guilt and self-doubt, the one moment in the picture that rings true remains this: When a literary agent upbraids Michael with a damning assessment of his work in progress: He has, the agent says with disappointment, nothing more on his hands than "random characters apologizing for your life."
That, sad to say, should have been the tag line to appear on the poster.