Inspired by an Asian proverb, this tells four interweaving stories. In Happiness, a miserable banker (Whitaker) makes a risky bet; in Pleasure, a psychic henchman (Fraser) works for mobster Fingers (Garcia), who takes on the management of singer Sorrow (G
“There are some people who believe in coincidences. I am not one of them,” says Brendan Fraser’s character in this episodic drama, whose conveniently interweaving narrative feels more like the work of an ambitious screenwriter than the mystical intervention of fate. Stylistically reminiscent of Babel, Sin City and even – gulp – Southland Tales, director Jieho Lee’s debut feature tackles weighty themes through eventful character-driven vignettes.
The idea is that life can be broken into four key emotions: Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow and Love, as exhibited by Forest Whitaker, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Kevin Bacon. But as Whitaker’s downtrodden banker puts 50 big ones on the gee-gees in the dubious gambling den belonging to a man named Fingers (Andy Garcia), you know that his happiness isn’t going to be conventional.
While Whitaker’s turn is morbid but affecting, Fraser’s Pleasure segment is the most enjoyable. His character can see into the near future, so he’s a handy heavy to collect cash for boss Fingers. Emile Hirsch puts in a comical turn as Fingers’ excitable nephew, arriving in town determined to live it large and causing chaos in strip clubs with his brazen frat boy naïveté.
Trista (Gellar) enters the picture when Fingers wins her contract from her manager, and welcomes her into the fold by getting his men to rough her up, the charmer. Only Sorrow can ensue, and here the sense of impending doom becomes even stronger. There’s a chance for redemption, however, in a fantastical finale in which doctor Kevin Bacon races round looking for a rare blood type for his undercharacterised, unrequited love (Julie Delpy).
The Air I Breathe is heavily stylised and undeniably pretentious, yet rarely dull. Appreciation of it is likely to be dictated by tolerance levels for OTT visual flourishes, contrived overlapping narratives and a po-faced simplification of ancient wisdoms. Characters lean more heavily towards the symbolic than the real, which makes this less engaging than, say, Crash; that this takes itself even more seriously than Crash makes its superficiality particularly evident. But it’s an intriguing oddity that’s busy and bold enough to hold the attention, even if you are shaking your head in disbelief.
An affected, overblown ensemble drama, this is far less profound than it would have you believe. But thanks to a lively plot and a strong cast, its not an unpleasant watch just a disposable one.