The Air I Breathe

Rating 2¾

Directed by Jieho Lee

Written by Jieho Lee and Bob DeRosa

Starring Forest Whitaker, Brendon Fraser, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kevin Bacon, Andy Garcia, Emile Hirsch, Julie Delpy and Clark Gregg

I wrote a review of this film after I chanced to see it, “on-line” so to speak, when it was given a limited theatrical release in America at the end of January 2008. The film attracted largely negative reviews, although when it was premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival on 29 April 2007 it had been received more favourably. Subsequently, it received the Special Jury Award at the Courmayeur Noir Film Festival in December 2007 from jury president Dario Argento, one of Italy’s most celebrated film directors.

The film has now been given a limited theatrical release in three London cinemas, providing me with the chance to see it on the “big screen” and write this second review. Once again, the reviews have been negative. In fact, British films critics have savaged the film. Steve Rose, writing about it in The Guardian newspaper, calls it, “This comically awful movie.”

Is the film really comically awful? He clearly thinks so, but his review suggests, rightly or wrongly, that he barely paid any attention to it past the first five minutes. He also refers to it making, “Matters even worse by dividing its trite fables of city life into sections entitled things like ‘Beauty’ and ‘Sorrow’.” The film is divided into four sections and these cast a light on each of the four main characters; ‘Happiness’ (Forest Whitaker), ‘Pleasure’ (Brendon Fraser), ‘Sorrow’ (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and ‘Love’ (Kevin Bacon). There is no section entitled ‘Beauty’.

Is it necessary for Rose to be able to report accurately about the content of the film to have a fair-minded negative opinion of it? Not at all. If he did not like the film it is understandable that his attention would have wondered elsewhere while watching it. In any case, his is just one of many negative reviews. Edward Porter, reviewing the film for the Sunday Times observes about the actors, “No doubt they felt good about themselves for appearing in a small, offbeat work by a first-time director; for the rest of us, however, the movie is no fun at all.” This does not tell us much about the film. It does, on the other hand, tell us something about Porter’s apparently low opinion of actors in general.

‘The Air I Breathe’ is based on an ancient Chinese proverb in which happiness, pleasure, sorrow and love represent the four cornerstones of life. We never learn the real names of the four main characters, although Sarah Michelle Gellar’s aspiring pop singer is referred to by her stage name, Trista. She refuses, however, to divulge her real name, other than to whisper it, unheard, into the ear of Brendon Fraser’s character. Sorrow is the odd one out here. The others are searching for the emotion used to describe them, but she is trying to escape it. However, all four are trapped in lives they would not choose for themselves.

The film opens with Forest Whitaker, playing ‘Happiness’, a sad and lonely bank worker who sees the happiness he seeks in the shape and form of butterflies. In his desperation to escape his seemingly empty life he comes to the attention of ‘Fingers’, a ruthless and brutal gangland boss played by Andy Garcia.

From here we meet Garcia’s enforcer and debt collector ‘Pleasure’, played by Brendon Fraser, a monosyllabic henchman who is able to see tiny glimpses of the future. This changes when Fingers forecloses on a debt and becomes the new manager of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s shallow pop starlet ‘Sorrow’. Pleasure is unable to see Sorrow’s future and this new experience, the pleasure of the unknown, is compounded when his glimpse of the immediate future of Tony (Emile Hirsch), the impulsive and distinctly repellent nephew of Fingers, proves to be a false omen of things to come. Sorrow’s redemption comes in the form of Kevin Bacon’s hospital doctor ‘Love’, who harbours unspoken feelings for Gina (Julie Delpy), the wife of his best friend.

The film tells its story in 95 minutes. The characters are ciphers. ‘Happiness’ is an interesting if somewhat glib opening sequence; greatly enhanced because Forest Whitaker is a very likeable actor. The same can be said of Brendon Fraser. This middle section of the film that combines both ‘Pleasure’ and ‘Sorrow’ is somewhat derivative and two-dimensional in terms of its depiction of the underbelly of illegal gambling and Mafia-style protection rackets. Andy Garcia is perfectly cast as Fingers, but perhaps too much so, and having this character called ‘Fingers’ is a little hackneyed, if we wish to find fault. What we do get, on the other hand, are the two most believable characters (even allowing for the ability of Pleasure to see the future) and genuine screen chemistry between Fraser and Gellar, although she is perhaps a touch too old for the role.

The film does, in truth, begin to unravel with the arrival of ‘Love’. This final section is not only too unbelievable and corny in its succession of coincidences; it also feels rushed and underdeveloped. Even the ever-dependable Kevin Bacon is unable to make much of his flimsy character.

‘The Air I Breathe’ is not a great film, but it has been pieced together with some skill and the script has been written with an attempt at a degree of originality. It also has the advantage of a skilled and likeable cast of actors. I have no qualms in saying my opinions are always at least partly subjective. I am influenced by numerous factors that will often make me biased in support of particular films. In this case, I consider myself to be a fan of the work of the actress Sarah Michelle Gellar and I am likely to look upon films she appears in more favourably than I perhaps otherwise would do.

Is ‘The Air I Breathe’ comically awful? I don’t think it is. It is not the best film I have ever seen, but it certainly isn’t the worst – by any means. If I were given to awarding star ratings out of five I think I would give this film two-and-a-half stars. Deduct the half to allow for my likely bias and two out of five is probably not unreasonable. Is it enough? Well, I think it’s good enough to make it watchable and that is more than I can say for at least one film that is widely considered to be an all-time screen classic.

Screencaps taken from smg-italia
Original review here

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