The Air I Breathe


The Air I Breathe

Forest Whitaker ponders how much simpler his life would be if he were a butterfly.

(THINKfilm) Brendan Fraser, Andy Garcia, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Bacon, Emile Hirsch, Julie Delpy, Clark Gregg, Kelly Hu. Directed by Jieho Lee

An ancient Chinese proverb breaks life down to four core emotions – Happiness, Sorrow, Pleasure and Love. These are as essential to life as the air we breathe (clever, no?) and without a balance of these things, we are unable to live our lives properly.

Each of the four vignettes in this film is centered around one of these emotions, or at least so we’re told. The first, “Happiness,” presents Whitaker as a timid banker who overhears a conversation at work in which a snide young man with “connections” tells some friends that they need to bet heavily on a race in which the outcome has been fixed. Whitaker goes to the same underground and illegal betting parlor and puts everything on his credit cards on the horse, going so far as to take a $50K line of credit out from the house. This is an extraordinarily unwise thing to do when you don’t have the ability to pay that kind of money back, especially from this kind of house.

The horse that was supposed to win stumbles and falls and the banker is on the hook for fifty grand to the notorious Fingers (Garcia), who came by his nickname honestly albeit gruesomely. At first, the banker resolves to skip town but a visit from Fingers’ menacing right-hand man (Fraser) dissuades the banker, who in a knuckleheaded move then decides to rob a bank to get the cash. For a vignette that is supposed to be about happiness, things sure don’t end happily.

The second vignette, “Pleasure,” is about Fingers’ man Friday, who has a special gift – he is able to foresee the future, only not his own. Fingers orders him to take his nephew Tony (Hirsch) on his rounds and show him what’s what. As the clairvoyant flunky complies, he discovers that he has lost his gift – which has been both a blessing and a curse. It certainly hasn’t been much of a pleasure.

The third vignette, “Sorrow,” concerns Trysta (Gellar), a pop singer who is on the verge of breaking out. Her manager gives Fingers her contract to pay off a gambling debt, which makes Trysta uneasy. The direction she wants her career to go isn’t necessarily the one that Fingers wants her to go to; when she attempts to flee, Fingers sends his clairvoyant assassin after her. This was the first segment that is aptly named.

Finally, there’s love in which an MD (Bacon) who is in love with his best friend’s wife (Delpy) is horrified to discover that she requires a transfusion in order to survive a bite from a rare snake (don’t ask) and her blood type is impossibly rare – unless you write for the movies, in which case it so happens that a certain pop star serendipitously has the same blood type.

Lee is a first-time director, so it is impressive that he put together a cast the caliber of this one together, which includes the Oscar-winning Whitaker and A-listers like Fraser and Bacon, as well as the up and coming Hirsch who may yet turn out to be the next Leonardo di Caprio.

In terms of performance, he gets what he pays for here as nearly the entire cast delivers, with outstanding grades to Fraser in particular, who plays the grim and rough clairvoyant with enough heart to make him sympathetic, but with a reptilian cold shell. Garcia plays Fingers with the same oily menace that made his performance as Terry Benedict in the Oceans movies so delicious.

What submarines this movie is the same thing that torpedoes most independent anthology movies; the unevenness of the vignettes. While the Fraser bit is the best of the bunch, the tone and flow are jarring when put next to the Bacon bit (I always wanted to say that – groan if you must) so in other words, the ride gets bumpy.

Also, the thematic conceit of linking each vignette to one of the Chinese core emotions doesn’t work for me as well; perhaps the point is to illustrate the lack of those emotions in order to play up their importance. If so, then the filmmakers are being unnecessarily indirect and sly; if not, then they probably could have used a steadier hand on the rewrites.

The main problem is you wind up wondering if you haven’t seen this all before and better, and the truth is that you have. With the success of Crash and Babel, indie filmmakers were anxious to channel their inner Robert Altmans and there consequently has been a rash of these sorts of movies that were released with varying degrees of success – including another one in which Whitaker stars that was previously reviewed here entitled Powder Blue.

I like a movie that takes chances and this one takes a few, but if you’re going to take chances you need to have your act together first and this movie isn’t quite there. It has enough moments that make it worthy of a mild recommendation, but understand that this isn’t a movie that’s going to give you a case of the “oh wows” by any stretch of the imagination.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some interesting moments and performances, particularly from Fraser, Whitaker, Garcia and Hirsch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overall pretty disjointed and as most independent anthology movies are, uneven in terms of quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and foul language and a fair share of sexuality and a smidgen of nudity; add it all together and it spells out “mature.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The pop songs supposedly sung by Gellar’s character Trysta are in reality sung by Kim Wayman.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Summer Hours