The Air I Breathe


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

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 is a 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 Southern accent.

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 cliché goes.

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' ballpark.


* features unknown







10 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
37 (of 100)


8.7 IMDB summary (of 10)







Box Office Mojo. It grossed only $26,000 in seven theaters, none of which renewed it for a second week.






The only nudity comes from some random strippers in a gratuitous strip club scene involving the unnecessary Emile Hirsch character in the "fifth wheel" story.

However, Buffy gets tied to a chair with her legs exposed up to her underpants (Hankster-approved!) and also has a sex scene with Brendan Fraser.







Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:

C or C-

I don't recommend it, but it's better than the critical reception would lead one to believe. (Although nowhere near as good as indicated by the astronomical IMDb score.