Review: A Smart, Sexy Movie About Grown-Ups? '3' Is the Magic Number

Tom Tykwer's ménage tale puts a sophisticated spin on adult sexuality

American movies talk a good game about sexuality, but they always chicken out when things get too steamy.

Farces like “The Change-Up” and “Hall Pass” skirt around the idea of married couples getting to take a break from straight-up monogamy, but no matter how open everyone says they are to the idea of sex outside the relationship, the final reel always has the husband and wife tearfully clenching, shaken but wiser with their brief flirtation with sexual liberation.

Europeans, for the most part, can’t believe what a bunch of puritans we still are on this subject, and they tend to make movies where people actually behave like recognizable human beings, even if that involves coloring outside the lines a little bit.

Which brings us to Tom Tykwer’s provocative and ferociously intelligent “3,” a movie no Hollywood studio would ever green-light but which is nonetheless one of this year’s best films so far.

It’s a date movie for couples who aren’t afraid to have complicated conversations afterward.

Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper) are two 40-somethings who are about to celebrate their 20th anniversary. And while the two clearly love each other, this is a relationship that has obviously gone a bit stale around the edges, with both of them feeling a certain nagging discontent that neither can quite put into words.

Both Hanna and Simon fall for dashing young doctor Adam (David Striesow), except that neither Hanna nor Simon are aware that their spouse is having an affair, and Adam has no idea that these two people know each other, much less that they’re married.

On paper, this could be a witty sex comedy along the lines of Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” or a boisterous door-slamming farce, but writer-director Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) has the moxie to turn this story into a drama. And while an American writer would have Hanna and Simon learn some big moral lesson before kicking Adam to the curb — assuming one or more of this triad didn’t have to be punished with an on-screen death — Tykwer lets his story run its course and allows the characters to figure out what’s best for everyone.

Hanna and Simon’s relationship flourishes as each separately grows close to Adam, who for his part seems perfectly happy to enjoy their company before going home alone. “3” never suggests that its characters’ actions are the preferred way of being, but neither does it reject the possibility that these three people can find fulfillment in this unconventional grouping.

All three lead performances walk a delicate tightrope — how do you commit adultery without losing audience sympathy? — and all succeed in making these characters empathetic and completely understandable. Even if you would never follow Hanna or Simon or Adam’s path, you’ll find yourself relating to and accepting their choices.

Passion, smarts, and boldness always tend to be in short supply at the movies, so it’s worth seeking out that rare film that contains all three.