Give Paul Haggis ("Crash") a couple of capable actors (Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks) and a good story to go off of (in this case a 2008 French film called, "Pour Elle" or "Anything for Her") and you certainly have a promising start. "The Next Three Days" is not going to add to Haggis' Oscar collection, but it is not going to be a sore on his filmography either.
Crowe and Banks play the happily married Brennan's (John and Lara). He is a professor at a Pittsburgh community college. She works at a dental office. "The Next Three Days" is billed as a movie about a husband busting his wife out of prison. Haggis, though, is just as concerned with establishing relationships between us audience members and his characters as he is with the actual escape attempt. That starts with giving us a glimpse of John and Lara as a couple. That starts with the two of them out to dinner with John's brother and his wife.
It is one of the movie's oddest scenes, and probably its weakest. Or maybe I just did not get it. I was confused immediately because of the seating arrangement of their table. John and Lara are seated facing each other with Lara next to John's brother and John next to his sister in law. Is that normal? It isn't, right? Right? Or am I the weirdo? Whatever the case there, the dinner quickly erupts into a rather confrontational argument between Lara and John's sister in law. The odd part, however, is that each time Haggis cuts to John's reaction he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself. Only when Lara gets up to take a swing at his sister in law does he finally intervene.
It is just weird. Haggis doesn't let the scene end, though, without showing just how in love John and Lara are. Married couples don't spontaneously make out in their cars, you say? Ha! John and Lara do.
The next morning, the doorbell rings just as Lara apparently discovers some blood on her coat. She is trying to wash it off with a confused look on her face when John opens the door and the police barge in. Lara is accused of murder, arrested and taken away while John has to be restrained and their son, Luke, wails in terror at the kitchen table.
A couple years go by and life is much different for John and Luke. Mom is in jail. Luke has nightmares regularly. John has just run out of options in the appeals realm. They visit Lara, who lashes out by telling John she is guilty (he doesn't believe it, and neither do we). Then she attempts to commit suicide.
So what do you do?
If Haggis has done his job - and he has - then you simply nod your head in support when John makes the decision to bust his wife out of prison. He has no choice, people!
My mainly minor complaints, other than the odd opening scene, are few. Olivia Wilde appears as a young mother John confides in and her character is pretty much pointless. There are one too many police detectives we get to know (one is plenty and we get two). And while I appreciate Haggis diligently establishing the stuff before the excitement, I do think an hour would have sufficed (we get an hour and a half).
On the whole, though, "The Next Three Days" features capable leads, good writing and direction, and a final half hour that makes it impossible to sit still. Not a bad way to shake off the tryptophan from that Thanksgiving turkey.