The Air I Breathe

Jieho Lee/Mexico-United States 2008

First-time feature film director Jieho Lee’s The Air I Breathe is nothing, if not a disappointment. With an all-star cast – featuring Kevin Bacon, Forest Whitaker, Andy Garcia, Julie Delpy, Brendan Fraser and Sarah Michelle Gellar – and an interesting premise drawn from a Chinese proverb, the film seemed likely to be a surefire hit. Instead, it’s a vacuous waste of an hour and a half and of a perfectly good premise.

The Air I Breathe features four characters who represent the four forces that are said to tie all people together: Happiness (Whitaker), Pleasure (Fraser), Sorrow (Gellar, also known in the film by her stage name, Trista, a bastardization of the Spanish for sad), and Love (Bacon). The film is comprised of four sections, each named for one of these characters. Each vignette, in turn, focuses on the story of its titular character and how that character lives in or arrives at its eponymous state of being. From the start, three of the four main characters are connected simply because they are somehow indebted to a local gangster known as Fingers (Garcia), but each vignette goes to great lengths to tie the characters more concretely together, intertwining their stories, symbolically highlighting the interconnected nature of these four emotions in the world.

The film starts out strong, with Whitaker’s turn as Happiness – a state the character doesn’t embody until his final moments. Fraser’s turn as Pleasure, too, is intriguing for it contemplation of the fact that living one’s life knowing that the future is not yet written can itself be a source of great pleasure. But after these two vignettes, The Air I Breathe begins to fall apart.

By the time the third vignette, centered on Gellar’s Sorrow, arrives, the film has devolved into a soap opera of unmotivated events coming one after another in hopes of somehow driving the plot or manufacturing a story. Nothing has any meaning or emotional weight any more.

Calling the latter part of the film a soap opera isn’t meant to deride the actors. It is true that Gellar and Fraser come off looking awkward a lot in the second half of the film, but neither is an actor who generally rises above the material he or she is given to work with. They have both done good work in their careers when given good material. Here, they fare quite well until the writing drops out from under them.

In the end, The Air I Breathe is a film more concerned with style, form and a tenuous connection to an ancient proverb than it is with telling a compelling story. The stellar cast is put to waste, and it would seem that they know this. When an audience member at the world premiere of the film asked the actors what drew them to the script, only Gellar answered earnestly. Bacon, Garcia and Fraser were more flippant, sarcastically skirting the question. Bacon responded with “I just wanted to play a character called Love.” Garcia followed suit with “I collect fingers”, and Fraser closed with “I like pleasure.” They may as well each have said: “I don’t know. What brought you to the theater? You though the film would be good, didn’t you? Well, so did I.”

As The Air I Breathe draws to a close with the end of Love’s vignette, everything comes full circle. Happenstance draws one final connection between Sorrow and Happiness. The moment that draws this connection is surely meant to be cathartic – a revelation about the world; instead, the audience members at the world premiere laughed. Sitting next to the film’s writers, director and stars, they laughed. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the way this was supposed to work.

© 2007 Neal Solon. All rights reserved.

1 Comment

  1. I read several bad reviews for this film before actually being able to get my hands on a copy, but remained optimistic about it as I sat down to watch it. Thankfully, some people actually possess the ability to sit down and watch a film with an open mind and then form their own opinion, which is exactly what I did.

    What I saw was not a pretentious portrayal of “cheap irony” in which the viewer lives in “Gellar’s world”. What I saw was a creative endeavour to intertwine four strangers through four major emotions, thus showing that through these emotions, everyone is connected – whether or not they are aware of it. This is what sociologists study and discuss everyday.

    The script was performed sensationally, by a stellar cast (Brendan Frasier, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Andy Garcia, Kevin Bacon, Forest Whitaker), encompassing a gritty, fast paced storyline, with melancholic overtones. This film is not all about Gellar – she gives a heart wrenching performance as Trista, but the film is dedicated as much to Garcia, Frasier and Bacon as it is to her. Each performance is worth its weight in gold – Garcia is frightening as mafia boss “Fingers”, Frasier pulls at your heart with his resignation to the terrible fates of the people around him and Bacon and Whitaker will surely gain your sympathy with the sheer level of their desperation.

    The only thing this film is guilty of is invoking emotion and thought from its viewers – and isn’t that the reason to watch it in the first place?

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