There are so many mind games going on in, around, and beneath “Third Person” — even the title has a few tricks up its sleeve — that it may take you a while to realize it’s less than it seems. The latest multi-character pile-up from “Crash” writer-director Paul Haggis, the movie comes with a similar Hollywood cast and weighty-unto-pompous themes, and it’s quite watchable on the surface: Pretty people, deluxe hotel suites, angsty passions. If Haggis were content to stick to the melodrama, he’d have a decent little movie. But he isn’t; he prefers Greater Meaning, and so “Third Person” staggers well over the two-hour mark only to self-destruct in a burst of overwrought cleverness.
At least Liam Neeson gets to sit still for a little. The actor has earned his keep lately with rip-snorting action thrillers like “Taken” and “Non-Stop,” and, honestly, he looks exhausted. As Michael, a famous novelist struggling with writer’s block in a Paris hotel, Neeson mostly gets out of his chair to have sex with Anna (Olivia Wilde), a former student and full-time free spirit whose power games with her lover keep him and the movie on its toes.
In an apparently unrelated story line, Scott (Adrien Brody), a caustic American on business in Rome, gets involved with Monika (Israeli actress Moran Atias), an illegal Romanian immigrant whose young daughter is being held for ransom by a bad dude named Marco (Riccardo Scamarcio). Or so she says; Scott is alert to the likelihood he’s a patsy in a con game, but Monika is gorgeous and her plight has mysterious resonances to events in his past.
Over in Manhattan, we look in on Julia (Mila Kunis), a distraught mother whose angry ex-husband, a famous painter played by James Franco, is keeping their son (Oliver Crouch) from her just because of an unfortunate incident involving a dry-cleaning bag. Julia means well but she’s a walking disaster and even her frosty lawyer (Maria Bello) is ready to write her off.
What do all these characters and story lines have to do with each other? Beyond a certain trauma revealed in the film’s home stretch, not a lot, and even less once Haggis springs a climactic twist that’s meant to land with a devastating punch but instead has the effect of nullifying everything we’ve seen. (If you listen carefully to Neeson’s Michael in the early scenes, you may be able to guess what’s afoot.)
As usual, this director is reaching for big statements on human folly and loss, and while his ambition can’t be faulted, his execution can. As in “Crash,” you sense a filmmaker tugging every string of his characters’ behavior; he makes beautiful puppets that rarely breathe on their own. And so terribly serious! If ever a director needed to get tickled, it’s this one.
Before “Third Person” pulls the rug out from under us, though, it gets by on dramatic tension, editor Jo Francis’s almost symphonic intercutting, and the performances. Few of the characters make it through the movie without suffering at least one ridiculous development, but the actors, bless them, keep a straight face and in a few cases compel a deeper sympathy. Brody gives the morose Scott a nicely irritated edge and Loan Chabanol is quietly moving in a small role as the painter’s new girlfriend; the actress stole her one scene in the recent “Fading Gigolo” too.
And, if nothing else, “Third Person” serves as a reminder of how very good Olivia Wilde can be. The poor woman is afflicted with Michelle Pfeiffer syndrome: She’s so beautiful that no one bothers to credit her with skill. It’s there, though, in spades: She was the only funny thing in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” turned “Drinking Buddies” into a withering portrait of a grown child, and stopped “Her” in its tracks as Joaquin Phoenix’s neurotic date.
Here, Wilde navigates Haggis’s emotional slalom course with malicious, playful ease, even when he steers Anna over a cliff with a dunderheaded third-act revelation. “Third Person” is full of characters who only come to life on paper — maybe because, as that final twist hints, it’s all really about Haggis himself — but Wilde somehow manages to escape off the page and onto the screen.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.