Anyone who found Babel's why-don't-we-try-to-understand-each-other? hand-wringing too subtle might prefer Thom Fitzgerald's 3 Needles, a triptych film about the global AIDS crisis that practically drips with earnest concern. In the first segment, Lucy Liu plays a pregnant entrepreneur who buys blood from Chinese villagers and sells it on the black market, inadvertently spreading disease to an entire farming community. In the second, Shawn Ashmore plays a porn star who fakes his blood tests until his blood source—his father—dies, inadvertently revealing Ashmore's secret life to mom Stockard Channing. And in the third, Chloë Sevigny, Sandra Oh, and Olympia Dukakis play missionary nuns taking action against the African tribesmen who rape children in their orphanage because they believe that will cure them of AIDS.
Along with the AIDS hook, the three stories in 3 Needles are linked by a narrator (Dukakis again) who describes the action as though reading from a storybook. That lightly condescending tone settles over the movie, as Fitzgerald shows people making life-threatening mistakes for mercenary reasons. Even more than the AIDS-spreaders, Fitzgerald has it in for the institutions that foster the spread: the military that frightens citizens they're meant to protect, the capitalists who make money off pharmaceuticals and life insurance, and especially the church for teaching people to be naïve.
Give Fitzgerald credit for ambition and good intentions, but for all its truth-to-power saber-rattling, 3 Needles is distressingly dim. Fitzgerald reportedly researched every aspect of this film as thoroughly as he could, and yet he's still made a movie that feels like it could've been written off the top of his head. The situations are contrived, the ironies are cheap, and the dialogue is overly blunt. (At one point Dukakis—a nun, remember—ruefully acknowledges that the tribesmen's rape of virgins is really no different than the Catholic Church's adoration of the Virgin Mary.) Fitzgerald doesn't even get the pornography right, sticking Ashmore in ridiculous scenarios that are like some stand-up comedian's idea of porn. Instead, Fitzgerald has Dukakis lecture the audience on what AIDS is and how it gets around. And while he can treat his characters like idiots if he wants, he should really leave us out of it.