If good intentions were all it took to create a decent movie, Thom Fitzgerald's "3 Needles" would be some kind of masterpiece. Told in three parts, the movie tracks the spread of HIV in China, Montreal, and western Africa, and frames the epidemic denominationally -- the chapters are named "The Buddhists," "The Christians," and "The Pagans." The cast, from Olympia Dukakis and Lucy Liu to Stockard Channing, Chloë Sevigny, and Sandra Oh, is enticing. Yet the film, which opens today around the country and plays here at the Brattle in time for today's World AIDS Day, is a disjointed humanitarian enterprise, not merely among its three acts but within the acts themselves.
Smartly, Fitzgerald avoids mere preaching, choosing to situate each story in the molds of drama and comedy. But he also forces the two to mix without the finesse to do so convincingly. The middle episode, for instance, concerns a young bottom-tier porn actor (Shawn Ashmore) who conspires to keep his infection secret by handing in his ill father's blood samples for regulatory health tests. But the emotional focus is on the attempts of his waitress mother (Channing) to use the disease to climb to a higher class, courtesy of a life insurance scheme.
This necessitates the mother's concocting a way to get sick herself. Channing looks bedraggled slinging coffee and fabulous during intercourse with a stranger at a strip club. Stuck with a French-Canadian accent, she goes for both tragedy and laughs, and, indeed, the character's situation is either dark melodrama or scathing farce -- Lars von Trier or Hal Hartley. Fitzgerald, whose previous films include 1997's "The Hanging Garden" and 1998's "Beefcake," splits the difference and sacrifices the clarity of his dismay.
Each installment turns on some kind of O. Henry-esque surprise. Two of the chapters end with a line of stinging dialogue about the price of a human life. The market rate in the Chinese episode is about $5. This is the first and most assured piece, with Liu playing a very pregnant Chinese wife and mother who pays destitute but healthy villagers for blood donations. A local farmer (Tanabadee Chokpikultong) offers up the arm of his sensible underage daughter, and uses the money to improve his farm. The venality afoot is sad and desperate, and all the performers are affecting, even if Liu's waddle is too much. Only here does Fitzgerald reasonably marry the bitter and the sweet, and the film's sociopolitical rancor sharply comes through.
By the last chapter, "3 Needles" has becomes a hopeless muddle, with Oh, Sevigny, and Dukakis, who narrates the entire picture, as nuns on a mission in South Africa. The ideas about love, salvation, and the value of both Jesus and good prophylactics are upstaged by several overwrought developments. (In all three sections, Fitzgerald demonstrates some problematic notions about the uses of a woman's sexuality.) Here the bid to dramatize disrespect and sacrilege just seems crass. It's hard to know what exactly the movie means with a lot of the choices it makes, even if, ultimately, it means well.
Writer/director Thomas Fitzgerald will be present at the film's 5 p.m. show tomorrow. Proceeds benefit the Boston Living Center, a local, nonprofit AIDS organization.