Audiences for Jim F. Robinson's Still Breathing will probably be divided on just how much romantic innocence in a movie they are willing to condone. It's at least possible to revel in every far-fetched incident involving Breathing's starcrossed lovers as 'magical,' but a story that places no constraints on happy coincidences, as this one, always teeters on the brink of corniness. This sort of tale can work if the characters deserve to have luck shine down on them; what seems unforgivable in Breathing, however, are its core assumptions that the lead female needs to be led by a man, and that she must lack personal focus. A presentation of a girlish woman need not entail contempt for her.

Most of Still Breathing intercuts moments in Fletcher McBracken's (Brendan Fraser) slow, easy life in San Antonio with scenes of Rosalyn Willoughby's (Joanna Going) fast, go-getting existence in Los Angeles. They've never met, and have had vastly different experiences in life. He's rich; she only aspires to be. But he's able to detect her behavior in his thoughts. And they share a dream, of a boy and a girl standing alone beside a pastoral riverbank. This image recurs at junctures between their stories throughout Breathing, implying that a link exists between them that lies outside of space and time. An elderly relative of Fletcher's also comments to the young man that members of their family dream of their future spouses, before even meeting them.

As Fletcher whiles away his time alone, cutting up glamour magazines to make collages of the woman's face who appears in his dream, Rosalyn scrambles for money by concocting schemes to fleece art collectors of their cash. A trip to China leads Fletcher to a stopover in L.A. He meets Rosalyn for the first time at a local bar, where she poses as a chaperone and art agent eager to show him the town. She eyes him as a fresh victim, but he instantly perceives her to be his soulmate. By degrees, he pierces her hardened heart. Convincing her to travel with him to his estate back home is no hard sell, but proving his abiding love to her is not nearly as easy.

Breathing could be construed as an indulgence for the woman who harbors fantasies of a young hunk with compassion, wisdom and money mysteriously entering her life and winning her over. The movie is far from harmless, though, because not only wealth and looks, but also the film's storytelling devices and aesthetic slant, belong in the domain of the male character. At the very beginning, the film establishes that Rosalyn's fate is dependent upon his dream-not ever, though, is the reverse possibility taken seriously, that his fate might hinge on hers. Rosalyn informs one of her clients that she has an interest in 'abstract art,' and confides to a friend that she hopes to one day put on a gallery show of her own work. But, from what we can gather, her artistic leanings are vague-and, since she cons art connoisseurs without the blink of an eye, her preferences might be altogether insincere. Fletcher, in contrast, is a practicing musician: He's an amateur trumpeter without pretenses, and he happily toots his horn alongside a rough-and-tumble, good-time jazz band that plays street corners. Fletcher on his instrument is having the time of his life, and Rosalyn in a studio barely knows what she is doing. Guess whose artistic commitment, and taste, we're expected to side with?

Robinson doesn't even stop at making Rosalyn a dope, but portrays her as such a cynical thief that he sacrifices much of the sympathy we can feel for her. A scene in which she fakes having AIDS to drive away a man she has just ripped off reveals a truly loathsome side to Rosalyn that the director is not, however, prepared to examine. The romantic vulnerability of the material turns into an excuse to belittle Rosalyn right before us. It happens on Robinson's watch, and if viewers form complaints that her character is put at an unreasonable disadvantage, they should address their concerns to him.

--Peter Henné