People watching

Fun is in the fragments in Crash director’s latest multistory narrative

Exhibit A: Couple No. 2.

Exhibit A: Couple No. 2.

Third Person
Ends tonight, July 31. Starring Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, Moran Atias, Mila Kunis and James Franco. Directed by Paul Haggis. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

A soft, urgent off-screen voice saying “Watch me!” is the first thing we hear at the start and the last thing we hear at the finish in the entertainingly labyrinthian new narrative puzzle from writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash).

In between those two moments, both of which involve a novelist played by Liam Neeson, we get the variously engaging bits and pieces of three loosely intertwined stories. Each of the three tales edges toward a turbulent sort of romantic drama involving separate couples in three separate cities.

In New York, a painter (James Franco) struggles with his ex-wife (an out-of-work actress played by Mila Kunis) and tries to restart some semblance of family life with his new girlfriend (Loan Chabanol). In Rome and vicinity, a high-stakes grifter from America (Adrien Brody) gets deeply involved with a young Roma woman (Moran Atias) who claims she needs money for the ransom of her young daughter. In Paris, Neeson’s novelist is indulging in a bizarre affair with a younger writer (Olivia Wilde) while taking long-distance calls from his estranged wife (Kim Basinger) and struggling to finish his latest book.

While each of the stories develops its own dramatic interest, the tangled, piecemeal presentation of fragments from each gradually begins to reveal assorted similarities among them all. It’s not that there’s any direct connection between the characters in one story and those in the others. Rather it’s a matter of situations and details and bits of mystery that recur, intermittently and somewhat serendipitously, in all three.

There are several broad hints that all of this is a matter of stuff that Neeson’s beleaguered writer is trying to whip into satisfactory shape for the quasi-autobiographical novel he’s struggling to complete. That in itself is one of the film’s most intriguing mysteries, but Third Person is at its best when it’s heeding that offscreen voice and giving us fascinating stuff to ponder and observe.