Tuesday, July 01, 2014

"Third Person": Paul Haggis shows how fiction writers try to modify real life with their fiction (and vice versa); it's dangerous

Authors sometimes take real-life incidents close to them and turn them into novels or fictions stories.  That can be risky, legally, and the process of doing so can provide a clever storytelling device for cinema.  That’s the case with the new film from Paul Haggis, “Third Person”, an ambitious effort of three interlocked stories set in Paris, Italy, and New York City, although a lot of the indoor work was done in Belgium.
It’s inviting to compare this complex 140-minute opus with the director’s earlier “Crash”, as well as other ambitious layer cakes like “Tower of Babel”.

Michael (Liam Neeson) has won Pulitzer prizes for fiction, and has now encountered a block in his careers, with his editor considering his latest work trite.  (The movie reflects the traditional trade publishing world where authors can’t survive if they go midlist; every novel has to break out;  self-publishing doesn’t exist yet.)  Anna (Olivia Wilde), a journalist, visits him in Paris, and they start a hotel.  Anna has a novella document herself.  Michael says he can only feel or care for real people through characters in his writing and admits that this is a character problem.

The movie presents two other story lines, although it’s quite some time before it’s apparent how these cake layers match up with the two leads’ novels. 

The bigger story, apparently Michael’s, shows Scott (Adrien Brody), an American traveling in Italy to promote his counterfeit designer clothing business, helping a femme fatale Monika (Moran Atlas) who is about to pay ransom to get her daughter back, and then that money is stolen.  I had some trouble getting into this narrative, although I guess I get Scott’s street smarts in Sicily (even if he doesn’t like the food as much as Anthony Bourdain).  There’s a curious love scene where, in diagonal positions in bed, the play footsy (Adrien, 40, could use bushier leg hair). 

But it’s the third story, apparently Anna’s, that strikes a chord.  Back in New York City, Julia (Mila Kunis), herself previously a soap opera star, has behaved badly and is in grave danger of losing all custody and visitation rights to her ex-husband, a well known artists Rick, played by James Franco, who is always likeable.  She takes a job as a domestic in a ritzy hotel where she used to stay and lives like a prole.  Not having enough money, her situation gets worse.

The conclusion of the movie pulls some surprises – they’re subject to interpretation – but it seems that the authors interact with the real-life sources of their characters, with some written-down and stolen phone numbers providing the link.  You don’t need to hack Internet traffic in this movie.

The official site is here  from Columbia Sony Pictures Classics. I saw the film budget night at the AMC Shirlington before a small audience.

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