"What if we choose to exist solely in a reality of our own making?" asks Pittsburgh community-college lit professor John Brennan (Russell Crowe) rhetorically during a discussion of Don Quixote in The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis' fourth effort as director. Like his lumpy protagonist, Haggis, who also scripted this remake of the 2008 French thriller Pour Elle (never released stateside), too confidently assumes viewers are as quick to abandon sense and logic.
The film's ordeal begins one morning three years ago at the breakfast table of the loving Brennan household, which includes short-fused wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and 3-year-old son Luke. Domestic bliss is interrupted by the cops barging in to arrest Lara for murder, right at the moment she's trying to wash a bloodstain out of her trench coat — and the day after she had a horrible fight with her now-dead boss.
Sporting tomato-red prison scrubs at the Allegheny County Jail and hairstyles and colors that will change drastically over the next 36 months and two-plus hours (barely onscreen, Banks may have tried to squeeze in a L'Oréal ad campaign or two during the shoot), Lara grows both increasingly despondent as her kid withdraws from her and extra horny without any conjugal visits. After Lara's final appeal is rejected, John — absolutely convinced of his spouse's innocence, despite a black-and-white dramatization of what might have happened as he pores over the contents of the box of evidence, rendered with the subtlety of a nickelodeon one-reeler — travels to Brooklyn to meet an ex-con (Liam Neeson, dressed up and squawking like a Bowery Boy) who offers prison-break tips.
Once the second act begins with a title card announcing "The Last 3 Months" — the amount of time John spends cooking up labyrinthine plans to spring Lara — Haggis' film becomes interminably nonsensical. The nutty professor Googles "diabetic conditions" (to fudge his insulin-injecting wife's lab report) and "how to break into a car" (to enter a van with said report); downloads a video on how to make a bump key; gets in his Prius to drive to the Bad Part of Town to ask for fake passports and ... Oxycontin; gets beaten up by RZA; blows up a meth lab; crosses paths with Trudie Styler; and packs a toiletry kit for Lara's great escape.
As a writer-director, Haggis has never been one for nuance or persuasive storytelling, as anyone who's seen the ham-fisted Crash or In the Valley of Elah knows. But a co-writing credit on the 2006 James Bond revamp Casino Royale at least proved his ability to map out a sleek, stylish caper. That skill is not evident in The Next Three Days, which is so overcrowded with incompetent cops (including Haggis' fellow Scientology apostate Jason Beghe) and near-mute, unaffecting blood ties (particularly Brian Dennehy as John's dad and Ty Simpkins as 6-year-old Luke) that the film fails in its attempts to maintain any suspense and establish John as a devoted family man, monomaniacally driven to a desperate act.
As for the roots of John's unwavering constancy to Lara, we're forced to take them on faith, since the husband and wife share about 10 minutes of screen time (consisting primarily of two instances of autopiloted, fully clothed, PG-13 rutting with abandon) before she's locked up. "Would you save the woman you love if you knew that by doing so, you would turn into someone that she might no longer be able to love?" Haggis asks in the press notes, by way of explaining the supposed emotional center of this ridiculous thriller. This, of course, presumes that Crowe comes across as lovable, rather than as a bored actor in a dumb project who cannot wait to score that Oxycontin.
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