The Air I Breathe (2007) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence, language and some sexual content and nudity
Running time: 95 min.
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Andy Garcia, Kevin Bacon, Julie Delpy, Forest Whitaker, Clark Gregg, Emile Hirsch, Kelly Hu, Evan Parke, John Cho, Kari Wuhrer
Director: Jieho Lee
Screenplay: Jieho Lee, Bob DeRosa
Review published July 26, 2008
A Chinese proverb provides the inspiration for four interconnected stories that deal with four interconnected emotions (Love, Pleasure, Sorrow and Happiness) explored in this ambitious, but highly flawed dramatic thriller by first-time feature film writer-director, Jieho Lee. All of the stories have a connection with a seedy underworld figure, "Fingers" (Garcia, Smokin' Aces), a bookie and would-be music promoter who wants to earn enough cash to no longer have to always be the bad guy. Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, The Marsh) heads the first segment as a bored business exec who finds excitement after overhearing a tip on a fixed horse race. His story is followed by that of one of Fingers henchmen (Fraser, Crash), who just so happens to have the invaluable gift of foresight. The third story deals with an aspiring pop sensation (Gellar) who catches the eye of Fingers, leading him to muscle his way into obtaining her contract. The final segment has a doctor (Bacon, Hollow Man) frantically trying to find a donor with a rare blood type in order to keep his afflicted wife (Delpy, Broken Flowers) alive.
The Air I Breathe reportedly took six years to get made. That's six years of thinking about the project to the point where it had become overcooked. Jieho Lee's crime drama is certainly ambitious, but so overbearing in its approach that most of the audience will probably be left far behind before the first segment expires. Despite quality actors filling up all of the major roles, their characters are set up to be archetypes. Lee sees them merely as vessels utilized to deliver an overriding theme, which could work if we could actually buy into their stories and situations as remotely within the realm of our universe as we know it.
Lee's direction is adept from a technical standpoint, but his worst enemy is his own script, co-written by Bob DeRosa. It's chock full of hard-to-swallow coincidences, shallow conveniences, and excessively forced contrivances. For example, there is a scene earlier in the film whereby pop sensation Trista is aggressively interviewed on a celebrity talk show and is asked a question about what makes her special. Her response is bewildering -- she has a rare blood type. What seems to be a silly bit of screenwriting turns out to be a major story contrivance later when the Kevin Bacon character is searching frantically for someone with his wife's ultra-rare blood type, and with very little time to spare, the television just so happens to be playing the interview that contains the superfluous revelation, and he just so happens to stop to watch it at that precise moment. Dare I mention that they also happen to be in the same town at the same time, and that he has no trouble tracking her down? I won't go into major spoilers, or I'd mention even greater contrivances, if you can believe it, that happen between the two later.
Lee tries to make a film as skillful as P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, except with a butterfly motif, but comes up short in characterizations for his ambitious ideas to take flight. Magnolia's "raining frogs" scene, as incredible as it is, still feels more right for the material than in trying to believe that one of the characters can see the future. Anderson's use seemed to fit in with the themes of his film while Lee's use is more of a gimmick. With special powers, it plays a little more like the TV show "Heroes", complete with interlocking stories, suicidal tendencies and a sense of connectedness that suggests that there are overriding elements at work. However, we're never privy to the meaning as to why all of these bizarre sets of circumstances happen to these characters, and the significance Lee tries to convey never manages to emerge on the screen.
When a cast this good can't at least make a film tolerable, you know you're watching a certain misfire. The Air I Breathe is the result of an idea kept in the oven too long. At least it's not a total wash; the diverse ensemble cast makes it that much easier to play "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon".
©2008 Vince Leo