Before 3, I had kind of given up on Tom Tykwer as a director. A former favorite of mine, the guy who directed Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior and the sublime Heaven, had, it seemed, gone Hollywood, making the thoroughly mediocre efforts Perfume and The International. Then he signed up to do the adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with the dreaded Wachowski brothers. What happened to the psycho-brilliant craftsman and artist I’d grown to love?
Nothing, really. I can’t exactly force the man into a box and expect him not to change. After all, who would say no to actors the likes of Dustin Hoffman or Naomi Watts? But it was still with some trepidation that I went into Drei (3), Tykwer’s first German feature in over a decade. It’s the kind of subtle, naughty black comedy that seems sincere at first, before you suddenly go, “Oh!” and slap yourself on the forehead.
The film concerns Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper), a modern Berlin couple in their early-40s. They’re well off, never married, have no kids, and have no real plans to do either. They are the kind of couple, Simon argues, where both parties would fight against having custody of the child should they ever get divorced. As a couple, they seem to be at a crossroads brought on by age and complacency, and they throw themselves into their work to skirt around the subject.
Simon’s life changes within the space of an afternoon when he’s told he has testicular cancer and must go under the knife right away. He’s unable to get hold of Hanna to give her the grave news, however, because she’s gone off with another man she’s just met, Adam (Devid Striesow).
During his rehabilitation, Simon meets that same man and does the same thing.
It’s a somewhat preposterous conceit, that two people could fall in love with the same man without them realizing, but Tykwer forces the suspension of disbelief, filling the screen with every flex of modern fairy-tale muscle he can summon. In another director’s hands this would probably be a straight screwball comedy, but with Tykwer at the helm, the humor is wry and passing.
Even with the work it asks of the audience, the film does connect in stretches. Sophie Rois is great as the manic Hanna and Sebastian Schipper actually does appear to morph right there on screen. But the film too often teeters over the edge, with Tykwer just playing with his characters instead of storytelling, like a cat that’s got a mouse by its tail. Hanna, Simon and Adam are tortured for our delight and from time to time it’s a devilishly enjoyable sight, but there isn’t enough behind it to delve into without reservation. Tykwer loyalists won’t be completely turned off, but 3 amounts to little more than a dose of filmic methadone to keep our kind going.