In a lovely little film called The Hanging Garden, writer/director Thom Fitzgerald gave us a character at three stages of life, growing and changing and crashing into old conceptions of himself. The three Williams, at different ages, even appeared on screen simultaneously. Fitzgerald's latest triptych is more subtle in the way it sews together its three-paneled story, but no less successful. 3 Needles is a clever anthology, spaced across three continents, in which AIDS and money are aggressively juxtaposed against each other until the point -- the new possibility of bartering with the disease -- emerges. One third of the story takes place in a French-Canadian household, where Olive, played by Stockard Channing, purposefully contracts HIV as part of a bold insurance swindle. A world away, in Southern Africa, a cynical Afrikaans plantation owner called Hallyday (Ian Roberts) invests in AZT because 70 percent of his workers are positive, and the drug will keep them alive and working longer. In rural China, a blood smuggler called Jin (Lucy Liu) sells tainted blood to start-up hospitals that are not yet sophisticated enough to reject her.

Each story has the low-energy pitch of a routine business meeting where everyone knows more or less how things will shake out. Nearly every scene is shot inside a blah-colored office or a workplace -- we even see some bored-looking porn workers greet a nurse who arrives to give them a routine HIV test. Ten years ago, a movie with AIDS as its central subject would have found it necessary to deal with the horror of lesions, hospital goodbyes and grief. This film seeks to rob AIDS of its plague-mystique and drag it into the realm of the workaday and the banal, where most other aspects of a managed life reside. It mostly succeeds, although a burdensome narration (can you name the last movie that was actually improved by a narration?) and a remarkably aimless ending hurt the project a great deal. The African story in particular seems to have been considered a weak link -- it shows many signs of editing-suite triage. Thankfully, the other two parts of the film are good enough to make up for it.