THE AIR I BREATHER
A low-budget production featuring top-flight talent suggests a hot screenwriter with enough props to get behind the camera. But Jieho Lee is no Paul Haggis, although The Air I Breathe inevitably will be likened to Academy Award-winner Crash. Haggis cut his teeth writing and directing for network television, earning a couple of Emmys as well as an Oscar nomination for Million Dollar Baby. The 34-year-old Lee had made several shorts and done some commercial work before somehow assembling an enviable cast and crew for an ambitious, overreaching art film.
The Air I Breathe, like Crash, weaves together multiple characters and plotlines into a tapestry meant to illustrate the interconnectedness of things. (Jieho makes sure we get the zen by referencing the well-worn “butterfly effect” in the film’s opening scenes.) Breathe, however, makes no pretense about the fabulousness of the narrative. Jieho has four protagonists act out their stories in distinct segments, one spilling over another, until seemingly random acts coalesce into an epiphanous whole, or so he’d like us to conclude.
In the segment slugged “Happiness,” a timid broker (Forest Whitaker) bets his life’s savings and more on a longshot horse, only to find himself in hock to a mobster named Fingers (Andy Garcia); in “Sorrow,” an aspiring pop tart (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has her blossoming career leveraged by her agent to pay off a debt to Fingers; in “Pleasure,” Fingers’ bag man (Brendan Fraser) falls for the pop tart and risks everything to free her from his boss’ grip; and in “Love,” a doctor (Kevin Bacon) struggles to save the life of his best friend’s wife (Julie Delpy), also his secret object of desire, who happens to have the same rare blood type as the pop tart…who attempts suicide because Fingers offs the bag man, who manages in a last act of compassion to slip a revolver to the beleaguered broker, who uses the gun to rob a bank instead of fending off thugs but unwittingly passes the loot to the pop tart…
You get the idea, but stir in a little clairvoyance, a lot of coincidence and a poisonous snake. Jieho and co-writer Bob DeRosa’s screenplay is contrived but clever enough, saved from itself by large dollops of drollery. Similarly, Jieho’s direction is self-conscious but film-school fashionable, a little Wong Kar-wai, a little Quentin Tarantino, although Jieho cites Truffaut, Godard and Hitchcock as influences. He doesn’t know what to do with actors, however, and the film’s impressive ensemble is wasted. Whitaker, Fraser and Bacon are in Ambient mode, Garcia is wearying as the world-weary gangster, and Gellar looks silly throwing tantrums in full glitter. Emile Hirsch couldn’t be more annoying as Finger’s bratty nephew, yet his performance turns out to be the most genuine.
The Air I Breathe no doubt excited producers looking for the next Crash, the next Babel–24 Grams–Amores Perros. Jieho has the structure right, and captures the genre’s de rigueur minor-key mood, but he doesn’t bring much else to the set. Were The Air I Breathe a Sundance entry with an unknown but aspiring cast, the movie would be considered the work of a promising filmmaker; given its high profile, it must be counted as a disappointment.