The Air I Breathe
Like Babel or Crash, The Air I Breathe comes together with clever precision and crosses all sorts of cultural boundaries.
The Chinese proverb that all emotions are intertwined, and so are people, is depicted in The Air I Breathe, using four very diverse characters from very diverse worlds, known only by the emotions they represent. The story starts off with Happiness (Forest Whitaker), a lonely banker who realizes he has let life pass him by until he decides to take chances, much like his mysterious client, Pleasure (Brendan Fraser). What Happiness doesn't know is that Pleasure is the lead henchman to a gangster named Fingers (Andy Garcia). Happiness overhears co-workers talk about a sure bet at a horse race and decides to bet more than he has, and so ends up owing Fingers. Meanwhile, Fingers wins a contract to represent popular pop singer Sorrow (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and she turns suicidal when she finds out he is her new manager. Then she takes an interest in Pleasure. And in another story, Love (Kevin Bacon) is frantically searching for a rare blood type to save his old girlfriend (Julie Delpy) from a snake bite. It just so happens Sorrow has the type Love is looking for. Finally, Fingers' self-absorbed nephew Tony (Emile Hirsch) is flying into town and he just wants to have fun; Fingers assigns a reluctant Pleasure to the task.
Sure, you could say that Gellar is just playing herself as she deals with rude journalists and overzealous fans, but she plays a range of emotion and pathos she hasn't tapped into since the end of her popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fraser is equally surprising. He's not played someone so stiff and unpleasant since he made a splash with indie film Gods and Monsters. Fraser also shows a strong range as Pleasure, who ends up becoming surprisingly sympathetic. Bacon and Whitaker are in rather low-key roles that don't seem to push their talents, and Hirsch is simply irritating in his one-note role. Garcia is famous for playing gangsters (Godfather, Part III anyone?), and Fingers is just as brutal and deadly, named for his preference to cut off people's fingers. His presence is chilling every time he walks into a room. He embodies fear, the emotion which seems to linger over or tamp down the emotions of the others.
First-time director/co-writer Jieho Lee makes a superb debut with an A-list cast and a compelling story. Even though it has the feel of an ancient Chinese proverb, The Air I Breathe is set in a Western city (in actuality it was shot in Mexico City) and is reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz: Sorrow as Dorothy, blithely seeking her career; Love as the Scarecrow; Pleasure as the heartless Tin Man; and Happiness as the Cowardly Lion. Fingers' role is not only both the good and bad witches, he is also the Great and Powerful Oz as well, who manipulates their lives, but ultimately has no power at all. Lee tosses in subtle filmic references to his movie influences, but the over-the-top third act takes away from the fine subtleties he sets up early in the film.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.