Tom Tykwer’s 3 is a simple story told in a complicated way. At its heart, it’s little more than a boy-meets-girl (and-also-other-boy) tale. But writer-director Tykwer complicates the issue greatly, as if to point out how people similarly complicate their own love lives with a lot of extraneous intellectualizing. The results aren’t nearly as propulsive as his breakout film, Run Lola Run, or as stylish as his followers, like The Princess And The Warrior or Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer. But 3 does showcase a restless, ambitious talent who invariably puts an idiosyncratic stamp on his material, no matter how ordinary it is at the core.
Sophie Rois and Sebastian Schipper star as a fortysomething Berlin couple celebrating their 20th anniversary together; they’ve never married or had children, but they have the comfortable relationship of old marrieds, right down to the way they occasionally disappoint each other, or take each other for granted. Then they separately encounter handsome, mildly enigmatic lab biologist Devid Striesow, whose sexual advances shake them out of their rut. Far from losing interest in their old relationship, Rois and Schipper are reinvigorated by their new lover, though doubts remain, and they each keep their affair secret from the other. But the film focuses less on their minor issues with the relationship, and more on broader issues of identity and biology: Schipper’s testicular cancer and his mother’s death from pancreatic cancer, questions of whether he or Rois is the infertile one in their pairing, musings on the spectrum of sexuality, and philosophical questions about the state of biological science and what it means to the nature of human life.
While it’s easy enough to decode 3’s intentions after the fact, the execution isn’t particularly cogent; an opening where half a dozen split-screen images jostle for space, with half a dozen characters (some repeated multiple times) talking at once, portends how the film’s ideas pile atop one another and crowd each other out. The early going, dealing with the various cancers, the protagonists’ jobs, and the slow progress of Rois and Striesow’s initial flirtation, seems distracted and overpacked, with diversions like voiceover musings, sexual fantasies and questionably real sequences (including a montage of Striesow’s activities that suggest he’s more Platonic ideal than human being), and black-and-white sequences that echo classic movies. All this experimentation is enjoyable enough in the moment, but it’s disappointing when Tykwer drops it in favor of a conventional, obvious ending. When a film is this obsessed with variety and multiplicity, it’s inevitably going to be disappointing when it ultimately has to narrow its vision down to a single, uniform ending point.