“Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, Love”
First-time director Jieho Lee has brought us the next installment of the multiple stories genre threaded together as though fate and coincidence are the name of the game. This type of narrative has been around for a long time, most definitely before Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, but at least there is an example from 15 years ago, and I can’t rack the brains for an earlier one at this time. The most well known to those out there today is of course Oscar-winner Crash. Lee’s The Air I Breathe, based on an ancient Chinese proverb that life can be broken down into the four emotional cornerstones of Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Love, is not as good as Haggis’ film, and I think even that one is overrated. It’s not that I disliked this one, I actually found a lot that I really loved, unfortunately, there’s more that feels overdone, overwritten, and absolutely unrealistic. One thing you can’t fault it for, however, is the superb cast and acting.
Some of the dialogue is almost too obvious, at times having answers repeat all the words in the question…just a bad redundancy as though the audience might not comprehend a short answer. These characters are so important in the scheme of each other’s lives that everything out of their mouths needs to be so well crafted that it becomes stiff. The delivery, though, is almost consistently superb. Brendan Fraser is great in a rare serious role, the kind of stuff that began his career. Very stoic and deliberate in all he does, you begin to feel for him as the stone façade starts to falter. Due to the story-structure going out of order, we see some of this emotional evolution before the catalyst for it, but once that event occurs, it makes everything before it make more sense and I actually think it was handled well as a result. Even his ability to see the future was utilized in a realistic way that it never felt like a gimmick, just a skill he had and used. The best actor, again as almost always, is Forest Whitaker as a by-the-books successful man who has finally realized that his pristine life is devoid of true happiness. No material needs can fill the void of actually living, whether living wealthy or poorly, it is the act of adventure and excitement that is necessary to enjoy. His final reaction of pure adulation is the best part of the film and it happens about twenty minutes in.
One would think that a story as involving as this would have pretty equal billing for all roles, but that is not true. Whitaker and Kevin Bacon are underused while Fraser is involved at almost every turn. Andy Garcia, however, is the one that stays the most constant throughout. As a hardnosed bookie/gangster, nicknamed “Fingers,” Garcia shines, something that usually doesn’t occur with him of late. He is good at this type of role and it was nice to see him sink his teeth into it. Even Sarah Michelle Gellar had her moments, although few, to show that maybe she can do more than Scooby-Doo and every year’s Japanese horror remake. Mention also needs to go to Clark Gregg in a small, but funny role, and Emile Hirsch as Garcia’s nephew, appearing to be a pawn to the plot, but in actuality becomes a role with payoff.
As far as the style went, I can’t complain too much. The correlations between each thread is well conceived if not totally contrived to benefit the story. I enjoyed the transitions, especially at the start with multiple layers and progressions. I can’t quite recall if that is the only part in which it was used, though. The music was also a help; very Explosions in the Sky-like, the score enhanced each moment it was used. In the end, the film just couldn’t keep its bloated, heavy-handed script up. Even utilizing the four emotions as vignette titles (something used similarly in the superior The Dead Girl) was so obvious that it became laughable. Each instance made you know first thing that they will be the exact opposite of that title despite the lead thinking they were—happiness was really depression, pleasure was really regret, sorrow was really vanity, and love was desperation. Every emotion is more of a backhanded overview that is manipulated in order to serve the tale, rather than allowing the tale to serve the emotions that are supposed to be back-boning it.
The Air I Breathe 7/10 | ★ ★ ★