Woody Allen once referred to Liam Neeson as being “incapable of a graceless moment in front of the camera.” Over the past several years, Liam Neeson has put that theory to the test. Starting with The A-Team, up and through Battleship, and now as the lead in Paul Haggis’s forthcoming Third Person, Neeson – perhaps the most affable screen presence on the planet – continues to place himself in roles that scar his credibility. And yet the beauty of it is the 62-year old actor’s quote somehow still manages to rise, almost in spite of all the lackluster material.
More confounding in the case of Third Person is Paul Haggis, a writer and director as historically uneven as his very public background. Haggis, a former scientologist who also published the most scathing insider account of that religion, wrote Casino Royale, one of the best Bond films of all-time, before going on to write Quantum of Solace, universally regarded as one of the worst. Haggis wrote and directed Crash, the most overachieving motion pictures of all-time, before going on to write and direct In the Valley of Elah, one of the least. Haggis is in, he’s out. He’s up, then down. And so now he’s finally come full-circle, directing yet another film-as-collage, one that lacks the smooth cohesiveness of Crash, if not the truth it seems so desperate to unravel.
The lead character in Third Person (played by Neeson) is an aging writer, living vicariously through the mishaps of his characters. In reality, this is Haggis on Haggis, a writer writing about a writer who seeks redemption through his plot valves. As an audience, we’ve seen this entertainment before, sinners working out life problems in the hope of being born anew. While there are moments of great clarity and tension (including one particularly gripping sequence involving James Franco and Mila Kunis) Haggis largely squanders a first-class acting troupe on what amounts to several one-acts. There are common threads connecting one piece to another, yet for the most part this is a case of Haggis returning to his once-prosperous well. Third Person is a dramatic-romantic-comedy (a drom-com?) that ultimately descends into absurdity. A trio of relationships, each of them complicated by some echo from the past. Confront the echo, remove the thorn. It’s 137 minutes worth of tedium featuring 45 seconds worth of Olivia Wilde, naked as a jaybird, parading around the halls of a hotel.
(Third Person opens in limited release this Friday.)