At some point in its development, The Air I Breathe must have been
considered a major project. The film has a solid cast from the B+ list: Forest
Whitaker, Andy Garcia, Buffy, Kevin Bacon, Brendan Fraser, Emile Hirsh. There
slick web site. It has
all kinds of ambition and a high-falutin' literary style based on an ancient
Chinese proverb about the four emotional cornerstones of life: pleasure,
happiness, sorrow and love. There are four separate stories illustrating each
of the four basic emotional food groups, and the lead characters are actually
identified by names like
"Pleasure" and "Sorrow" in
the credits. That's not Joe Pleasure, or Mortimer Sorrow, but just Pleasure
and Sorrow. Happiness (Whitaker) is a meek stockbroker, Pleasure (Fraser) a
hit man who can see the future, Sorrow (Gellar) is a female pop star and Love
(Bacon) is a doctor desperate to save the life of someone important to him.
Their stories are all linked through a crime boss (Garcia). Hirsch plays Garcia's
nephew. The four stories are intertwined because happiness and sorrow are
intertwined in life. Get it? When combined, the four tales coalesce into a nearly circular form,
ala Pulp Fiction. In tone and style, the film seems similar in many ways to
Crash, a multiple Oscar winner.
Sounds "important," doesn't it?
The result: it was released in seven theaters for one week, the last week
in January, 2008. My guess is that even that tiny distribution was
perfunctory, probably to fulfill some kind of promise or contract. The film did not get a second week in any of the theaters.
What went wrong?
Well, these elements stand out:
I'll bet you've already deduced that the project is pretentious.
Oh-so-serious ensemble dramas tend to lean in that direction, and this
particular one leans so far that it falls over. The characters virtually
speak in fortune cookie dialogue. "The things we can't change, change us."
"Scars are the road map to the soul." I believe Bill Clinton used to say
that. Oh, wait. That was "cigars," not "scars." They sound alike with a
It tries to blend too many disparate elements. As the New York Times
wrote: "Among other things, Mr. Lee declares, it is a film noir variation of
The Wizard of Oz and an exploration of the theme of character as destiny.
Whew! That’s an awful lot of concepts for one movie to juggle." Indeed. On
the one hand it wants to essay some serious themes, ala Crash. One the other
hand, it's filled with gimmicky supernatural elements and violent, cavalier
noir-movie gangsters. So it's Crash meets The Sixth Sense meets Pulp
Fiction. Each of those films is good, but they don't mesh well. I loves me a
Guinness, some nectarines, and spicy mustard. But not together.
The four stories intersect in somewhat preposterous ways, to the point
where the convergences get the audience groaning. These unlikely
coincidences might have been tolerable in smaller doses, but when piled one
upon another and combined with the gangster's ability to see the future,
they create a kind of madcap surreal world that would be more appropriate in
a cocky black comedy. That effect flies directly in the face of the film's
grand literary aspirations.
You can probably tell from the brief synopsis in the first paragraph that
Emile Hirsch's role, as the gangster's feckless nephew, was
fundamentally unrelated to the rest of the movie. It doesn't even fit into a
verbal summary, except as an afterthought. That character could have been
cut completely without losing anything from the film. His story was actually
a fifth tale, but there are only supposed to be four emotional pillars of
life. It's as if Confucius had told us that the five building-blocks of life
are happiness, pleasure, love, sorrow, and douchebaggery. Having noted that
Hirsch's brief role is totally irrelevant, I want to add that I'm glad he's
there because he provides some comic relief in a film which otherwise takes
itself much too seriously.
The distributors were almost certainly correct in their abandonment of the
project. I can't see how the film could have attracted a big audience, so a
wide release would probably have been throwing good money after bad, as the
But I'll tell you this. There's a lot of talent on display here for a
rookie writer/director. He made a lot of mistakes, but he also demonstrated a
lot of potential. If you think about it, Magnolia also could have been an
epic failure for most of the same reasons I cited above. Many people would
say that it was. There are very fine lines between pride and hubris, between
poignancy and pretension. Magnolia negotiated the lines a bit better than this
film. But Magnolia's Paul Thomas Anderson and the director of The Air I Breathe (Jieho
Lee) were going in the same directions. They are guys who reach
for the stars and wear their hearts on their sleeves. I like that kind of
ambition and I like that kind of emotional intensity. I like it very much when
young filmmakers, men and women who have not lived long enough to be jaded and
cautious, reach for the stars. It's the Mickey Mantle theory of hitting,
as applied to filmmaking: swing as hard as you can every time. You strike out a
lot, but when you connect, the result is a beautiful thing to watch, and the
applause is deafening. Mr. Lee failed because his ambitions involved the upper
deck instead of a sensible game-winning single into the gap, but if you have to
fail, that's the way to go! Maybe next time he'll knock it out of the ol'