Review: The circle of lifelessness in ‘360’

LONDON – There are precious few good screenplays that begin with the words, “A wise man once said…”. There are fewer still that use this introductory wisdom to undermine their entire metaphorical throughline. Peter Morgan’s script for “360,” a vacuous theoretical spin on “La Ronde” with a parade of loveless characters seemingly linked only by the same globe-trotting interior designer, falls into neither of these elite categories.

Certainly, alarm bells start ringing when the aforementioned line is completed with the instruction, “If there”s a fork in the road, take it” – an epiphany of which “360” is sufficiently proud that it gets repeated at the film”s close. (It”s about circles, you see.) Quite aside from the fact that Morgan and director Fernando Meirelles seem to have their definitions of wise men and fridge magnets confused on this occasion, the fork-in-the-road analogy is a jarring one with which to frame what otherwise purports to be a story of cyclical connectedness-in which sexuality, in particular, is revealed to have concentric consequences, though few of them particularly drastic, for its geographically scattered ensemble players. Can a circular road-such as Vienna”s Ringstraße, none-too-subtly namechecked in the film”s token Schnitzler-tapping Austrian strand-also fork?

If that sounds a pettily literal complaint, it merely scratches the wood-veneer surface of this punishingly glib film”s lack of conviction in its own dimestore philosophy: can we alter our fates at this hypothetical fork, or are they as pre-determined as a carousel route? “360” hedges its bets on both answers, which could be a provocative stance in itself if there were some drama surrounding the motto-shopping. Perhaps it”s telling that Morgan”s greatest screenwriting successes thus far have been in the comfortingly pre-plotted realm of modern history, where the film”s moral and thematic compass is in some part steered by what he and the audience already know and feel on the subject; place him in fiction, as in last year”s clueless supernatural melodrama “Hereafter,” and his worldview apparently turns to jelly.

Like that ill-fated Clint Eastwood film, “360” chases the illusion of dramatic heft by splintering what it has across several threadbare narratives, the links between them as casually formed as those of a daisy chain: Morgan is seemingly in thrall to the recent work of Guillermo Arriaga, whose most pat work is still more completely realized than this. 

Jude Law”s travelling businessman chickens out of an appointment with a suspiciously elderly-looking Slovakian hooker (Lucia Sipasova), while back in London, his magazine-stylist wife (Rachel Weisz, who presumably took this thankless role as a favor to the director who steered her to an Oscar six years ago) breaks off an affair with a dishy Brazilian photographer (Juliano Cazarre). The latter”s ex-girlfriend (Maria Flore) flies back to the US, where she inexplicably hooks up with Ben Foster”s grubby, reformed sex offender at the airport and befriends Anthony Hopkins”s bereaved alcoholic codger. He vaguely inspires a fellow attendee at an AA meeting, a neglected Russian dental hygienist (Dinara Drukarova), to separate from her husband, who”s neatly over in Vienna chatting up the Slovakian hooker”s virtuous sister – you get the idea.

It”s a small, small world, and smaller still when its inhabitants are this reactive and colorless, required to feel precisely one emotion per scene: whichever one will at that point most effectively serve the film”s thin thesis that sex drives most of our major life decisions (particularly, in these enlightened times of ours, if you”re a woman).

Morgan”s lack of personal investment in these detail-free board-game characters is palpable: Law”s character is actually described in the course of the film as “an esteemed company director with a wedding ring on his finger,” while entire backstories are efficiently condensed with such helpful dialogue pointers as “She has heart” and “You look so happy.” Their strands may physically coalesce, but they remain on separate floors in terms of subtext: where great multi-narrative films gain in resonance what they do in knottiness, these anecdotal snapshots succeed only in thematically drowning each other out.

If Morgan (who also enjoys a brief, oily cameo) is at sea here, Meirelles is merely floating on the surface: it”s hard to believe the showily vital director of “City of God” is even capable of the wholly anonymous gloss he lacquers over the material here, a substance sufficiently gloopy to thwart even actors as routinely interesting as Foster, whose atonal scuzziness makes him by default the film”s most compelling presence. Gifted cinematographer Adriano Goldman (stepping down from the highs of “Jane Eyre”) is sufficiently exasperated by the script”s dogged pursuit of circle metaphors to shoot everything in rigid verticals, as the soundtrack burbles with the Starbucks jazz you get from pressing the Casio key marked “tasteful sexuality.” Those words would appear to be the entire MO of “360,” a dull, circular sigh of a film hesitating at the fork in the road between psychological study and sexual fantasy-and finally taking neither.