A good love story is hard to beat. So the promise of three separate yet intricately connected love stories must be even better, right? That’s what Paul Haggis promises us in Third Person, a film that follows three couples in Paris, Rome, and New York. The initial draw is wondering how everything will tie together in the end. Which is great, except that the “twist” is given away quite early in a bit of ham-handed dialogue, leaving us with a meditation on the fictions we create and what – and who – we choose to believe.
The story is anchored by Michael, an author struggling with his new book, and his muse/protegé/lover Anna, who toy with each other's hearts and minds in a Paris hotel. In Rome, grumpy American Scott meets the mysterious Monika, a Roma woman trying to rescue her daughter from a human trafficking ring. And in New York, Julia struggles to rebuild her life while battling her ex-husband for custody of their son.
When I picture the storyboards you created for the film, I see roughly-sketched panels that place characters where they need to be, indicate what they’re and doing what they need to be doing at various points, without getting into any detail as to who they are, who they will become, or what motivates them. At that point in the process, they might just be stick figures or vague, featureless shapes. The fleshing out of the characters comes much later. Or at least it's supposed to.
The first act places everyone at a blank, dead-eyed starting point. Once we are sufficiently informed that everyone is sad about something, connections start to develop, and relationships are established. I began to be slightly charmed by some of what was taking shape.
Halfway through, it feels like someone abruptly realized the characters need to be sad and angry, and the witty banter and flirting suddenly lapses into silences that I imagine are supposed to be brooding and/or pensive, but are really just flat and uninteresting.
By the time each character has a Big Emotional Climax, it doesn't quite fit with how they have developed thus far. Haggis knows where he wants his characters to end up, but the sudden shift from subtle, slow-burning character study to overwrought, hysterical dialogue and action is too jarring to make their journey engaging. The film goes from quiet contemplation to high melodrama so fast I was left wondering what the hell just happened. The plot twists feel like cantaloupes thrown at my head by someone yelling, "Here is a shocking twist! Be shocked now!"
The characters do and say a lot, and there are a few moments in which you see a glimmer of chemistry or life, especially in the Michael-Anna relationship. But for all the heavy-handed dialogue and over-the-top emoting, they remain the fleshless, featureless figures in a storyboard panel that merely serve as bland points of reference and scale for the image being constructed.