Good things come in “3,” but writer-helmer Tom Tykwer’s latest film also has some narrative fat that would have been better trimmed, as well as underlying character problems. Tykwer’s first film in his native German for some time, this story of infidelity and sexual fluidity among affluent, Berlin-based sophisticates mostly plays well as a dramedy of contempo social mores. Pic should often ring true for chattering-class urbanistas around the world, even though it’s deeply, satisfyingly embedded in the city in which it’s set. However, although there’s obvious crossover potential to gay auds as well, pic’s prospects are still strictly niche offshore.
Both a bit past 40, longstanding couple Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper) have satisfying, hectic careers and no kids. She’s the anchorwoman on a high-toned TV talkshow; he’s an art engineer. Although subsequent dialogue reveals that both have strayed in the past, they appear to have a relatively strong relationship, even though it’s in something of a rut now.
By the sort of chance that often happens in Tykwer’s films (such as “Run Lola Run”), Hanna keeps running into Adam (Devid Striesow), a rugged but somewhat enigmatic genetic scientist. The spark of attraction catches fire, and eventually the two tumble into bed together.Meanwhile, Simon, who’s just dealt with the death of his bohemian mother (eminent thesp Angela Winkler, star of Volker Schloendorff’s 1975 New German Cinema classic “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”), finds out he has to have an operation immediately to remove a cancerous testicle — on the very night Hanna sleeps with Adam for the first time.
Over time, Simon recovers, but something has clearly been shaken up inside him. One night, at Berlin’s strikingly beautiful Badeschiff swimming pool, he also meets and is attracted to Adam, who initiates Simon’s first sexual experience with another man. Afterward, he haunts the pool looking for Adam, and eventually they meet again and begin an affair. (The tastefully lensed sex is more explicit than in, say, “Brokeback Mountain,” but still probably within the realms of an R rating.)
Adam is at ease with having a lover who lives with someone else; after all, his other lover, Hanna, whom Simon doesn’t know about, is also attached. Neither Hanna nor Simon realizes the other is cheating, and Adam has no idea they’re a couple, but the audience can see clearly where this one is heading.
Tykwer’s nuanced script embroiders a lot of intricate, telling detail into the fabric it depicts. There’s a strong sense throughout of how the central trio are embedded in an extensive social network of friends and family, and given that Berlin’s actually a relatively small city for a world capital (whose locations are used marvelously here), it’s not such a stretch to imagine the pic’s weird core coincidence taking place. Dialogue is consistently believable and often outright funny — there’s a hilarious, self-denigrating interchange between Hanna and Adam about Austria, where she hails from originally. Adopting a slightly elliptical strategy toward characterization, Tykwer reveals much about who these people are by showing what they do, what art they consume and what they think about it, what their homes look like and whom they hang out with.
With her brittle humor and spitfire energy, it’s hard not to like intelligent, sexually confident Hanna, so engagingly incarnated by the wiry, not quite classically beautiful Rois, who’s better known locally for her work in legit. There’s a lovely, delicate chemistry between her and Tykwer regular Schipper, who’s equally charming here with his gangly air of confusion and gentle, incandescent smiles. Striesow’s Adam, effectively playing the Terrence Stamp role if this were compared with Pasolini’s similarly pansexual “Theorem,” reps the weak point of the love triangle. Tykwer himself admits in a director’s statement that the character starts out as something of an angelic cipher who becomes more grounded in reality by the end, but the transition doesn’t really work.
Likewise, Tykwer’s deployment of stylized elements and flights of fancy (such as Simon’s dead mother appearing as an angel to recite a poem by Hermann Hesse) feel tacked on, formalism for formalism’s sake; these aspects are much more typical of his early work, such as “Winter Sleepers” and “Run Lola Run,” as opposed to his recent, studio-financed “The International.”Pic’s two-hour running time also feels a half-hour too long, even with the perfunctory, predictable and oddly unsatisfying ending.