Manipulative and contrived, Paul Haggis’s gloomy ‘Third Person’ crashes.

Liam Neeson in Third Person.

Two stars

Third PersonLiam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody. Directed by Paul Haggis. Rated R. Opens Friday.

After guiding his terrible 2005 racism-is-bad drama Crash to a Best Picture Oscar, writer-director Paul Haggis has had a tough time recapturing its acclaim and success. His new movie, Third Person, returns to the Crash technique of telling multiple stories that intersect in minor but thematically significant ways, and it features a cast similarly packed with famous faces (Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, James Franco, Maria Bello, etc.). Although Third Person is much less self-righteous than Crash, it’s nearly as solemn and overwrought, telling three different stories about anguished people dealing with personal crises.

Haggis’ storytelling is as gloomy and heavy-handed as ever, and his three stories (set in Rome, Paris and New York City) feature child endangerment, incest, child kidnapping and parents grieving over the deaths of small children (sense a pattern?). Haggis’ use of these devices is manipulative and contrived, and he teases key details in order to create artificially “shocking” moments. The talented actors often elevate the material, but even they can’t make up for the ridiculous cop-out of a twist ending, which undermines any emotional investment that Haggis might have built up over the preceding two hours.

As a director, he comes up with some clever visual cues and transitions, but even those bits of smart craftsmanship turn out to be narrative cheats, foreshadowing the way the story completely collapses at the end. Even when Haggis seems to acknowledge that he actually has nothing to say, he does so in the most obnoxious, smug way he can.

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