As a filmmaker, director Fernando Meirelles ("City of God," "The Constant Gardener") has never lacked for style or ambition. But his latest film, "360," demonstrates all the pitfalls of his approach, producing a drama that is quite often audacious but at the expense of real insight or unique ideas. Yet another ensemble piece in which a wide swath of characters from different backgrounds randomly enter into one another's lives, "360" is suffused with real feeling, sincere intentions and good performances, but that doesn't make it any less exasperating.
Based loosely on Arthur Schnitzler's play "La Ronde," "360" examines (among other things) how sex informs so many of the decisions we make, looking at characters from several different countries in the process. On one end, you've got Jude Law and Rachel Weisz playing a quietly unsatisfied London married couple who are dealing with their own secret infidelities. On the other, you have Ben Foster playing an American sex offender recently released from prison who unexpectedly ends up stranded in a snowed-in Denver airport with a seductive young woman (Maria Flor) wanting to sow some wild oats.
These are just some of the stories screenwriter Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon," "The Queen") explores in "360," finding interesting (though not very surprising) connections between his large group of players. In a sense, Morgan has done this sort of roundelay before with his script for Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter." However, where that film looked at how the hovering presence of death connects us all, with "360" he's taken the same approach but with sex and love as his unifying themes. But he and Meirelles are up against a collection of recent ensemble movies (most notably "Babel") that have likewise leaned heavily on dramatic coincidence and international locations to suggest that we're all part of the same, crazy world beholden to the cruel peculiarities of fate. Consequently, "360's" globetrotting technique feels awfully familiar, an empty show of cleverness and artsy sophistication.
Equally troublesome, "360" never quite comes up with anything worthwhile in its investigation of sex's power over us. Quite often, characters are either engaged in affairs, leaving a relationship because of an infidelity, or pondering a potential infidelity. The repetition of these actions doesn't make them seem universal or empathetic. Rather, they come across as melodramatic and pedestrian, which doesn't help when the filmmakers keep piling on the chance encounters and exploiting too-tidy scenarios that force seemingly mismatched characters into the same setting. (To be fair, the movie also touches on grieving, class dynamics and alienation, but Meirelles doesn't probe too deeply here either.) "360" wants to be profound, cosmopolitan, but also pulpy as well -- especially during a rather ludicrous finale involving a sex worker. By trying to be all three at once, it does none of them very well.
That said, the movie is buoyed somewhat by the performers' commitment to under-written roles. Foster has made a career out of playing slightly unhinged characters, and while there's nothing particularly revelatory in what he does in "360," it's very much in keeping with his twitchy, soft-spoken persona. Likewise, Anthony Hopkins doesn't have much to work with as a father foolishly keeping hope alive that his long-lost daughter might not be dead, but it's an affecting performance of quiet, sad resignation that we get so rarely from him these days.
But what does any of this build to? I wish I could say. The individual vignettes are handled with a masterful eye for composition and pacing, but "360" has so little emotional resonance beneath its coincidences, ironic parallels, and "hey, ain't life random?" musings that you mostly sit there wasting time thinking about composition and pacing. Meirelles is an immensely talented filmmaker, but with "360" he's a filmmaker too busy throwing his talent around in a showy way. For a movie that emphasizes the importance of the choices that we make, it's sad that "360" is bedeviled by creative decisions that always privilege style over storytelling.