Paul Haggis likes to design intricate jigsaw puzzles, films in which numerous pieces gradually fit together to create a comprehensive whole. "Crash," his surprise Oscar winner, was told as an a number of interlocking stories that together made a damning portrait of an America seething with latent and blatant racism. Understated and nuanced the film was not. Powerful it was.

In "Third Person," the director and writer revives the multilayered style of "Crash," but this time the result is an emotionally hollow triptych. "Third Person" is big on ambition, and that's reason enough to respect it. Ultimately, however, the star-studded vehicle winds up resembling a creative writing project gone seriously awry.

This long melodrama about prose and wounded people is much too self-satisfied with its narrative devices and desires. That, along with Haggis' incessant desire to overexplain, exacts a toll on its tormented, not very convincing characters. The big-name cast of Liam Neeson, James Franco, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, Mila Kunis and Maria Bello is impressive, but the actors' performances are hampered by overstated, sometimes shocking developments.

Basically, this visually stimulating, globe-trotting drama stitches together three separate plots. The main thread concerns a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer named Michael (Neeson, who's good at looking lost here). As a character, he's a hard-to-pinpoint guy struggling with the written word and engaged in a hot affair in Paris. We realize right away that Michael's plagued by internal demons, because there's a liquor bottle on his hotel desk and he's puffing on cigarettes while typing on his laptop. If that's not enough, a whisper in the dark signifies that this man is haunted by the past. We get it already.

When he's not tapping on his keyboard or having kinky sex with erratic magazine writer Anna (Wilde, who gives the curious role her all), Michael's talking on the phone solemnly with his estranged wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger), who speaks in whispers to show she's struggling to keep a firm grip.

Meanwhile in New York, a sullen, frazzled Julia (Kunis) takes a job as a maid while her lawyer (Maria Bello, the best performance and the most interesting character) tries to gain Julia visitation rights with her son. Julia's 6-year-old is living with his dad, Rick (Franco, not given enough to do), a wealthy artist who's furious with his ex-wife. Rick's girlfriend, Sam (Loan Chabanol), doesn't talk much but has a compassionate soul and observant eye.

Not enough characters to keep your interest? Haggis spins another tale, the weakest in the bunch, about Scott (Brody), an obnoxious American businessman who meets a sexy woman in a bar named Monika (a sultry Moran Atias), then gets enmeshed in her crazy life. This scenario plays out in gorgeous Rome, and Scott despises Rome. But I don't think much of Scott, so I guess we're even.

How do all these lives connect? Where does it all lead? And shouldn't Neeson be punching the daylights out of some thugs who took his daughter? Oh, the mind does wander as the time ticks slowly by in "Third Person."

Never fear, most of these questions are answered again and again, in a finale that overplays its hand.

Haggis has written and directed better films than "Third Person," and I bet he will make even better ones in the future. He's immensely talented and painstakingly detailed. But "Third Person" sorely underestimates its audience, assuming it needs to be led firmly by the hand to be informed.

As anyone who's done a jigsaw puzzle knows, that's a big mistake. The real pleasure comes from figuring out for ourselves how all those little pieces fit so snugly together.

'Third Person'
H *
Rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)
Cast: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Olivia Wilde,
James Franco, Adrien Brody, Maria Bello
Director and writer: Paul Haggis
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes