Following a similar structure of films such as "Babel" or "Crash," "The Air I Breathe" is a slick and stylish film telling four unique stories that overlap and intertwine through twists of fate and inevitable destiny. The film's concept, brought to life by writer/director Jieho Lee and writer Bob DeRosa, derives from an ancient Chinese proverb that breaks life down into four cornerstone emotions: happiness, love, pleasure, and sorrow. Together, those four feelings combine to form the essence that defines our humanity.
In the film, each of the unnamed central characters and their corresponding tale represents one of these key emotions. Happiness (Forest Whitaker) is a businessman living a rather mundane lifestyle who loses everything after literally betting on a long shot and resorts to robbing a bank to clean up his mess. Kevin Bacon portrays Love, a desperate doctor racing against time to save the life of a woman close to his heart. Pleasure (Brendan Fraser) is a gangster who possesses an ability to see glimpses of the future, but his blessing is also a curse as it completely denies him the blissful element of surprise. And Sorrow (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a rising young pop star that can't escape the clutches of a vicious crime lord.
It's this fifth character, a ruthless mob boss nicknamed Fingers (Andy Garcia) that links the four stories together. They call him Fingers because, well, we'll just leave that up to your imagination. He's the epitome of evil, and the way he wriggles his fingers into the lives of these four individuals it's like he signifies greed, wrath, and the rest of the seven deadly sins rolled into a single handsome package.
Filling the supportive roles are Emile Hirsch as Tony who is Fingers' immature nephew that Pleasure is forced to babysit and show around the town; and Gina (Julie Delpy), the woman pulling Kevin Bacon's heartstrings that explosively sends him teetering on the edge of desperation. Both don't have much time on camera, but when they do they make the most of it and light up the screen with their presence.
Without revealing too much, it's also worth noting that there's an underlying butterfly theme that keeps cropping up throughout the movie. The idea of a caterpillar forming a cocoon to emerge as an entirely different creature with a new beginning poetically captures what the filmmakers were trying to get across in each of the stories and even at the end.
All of the actors deliver powerful performances, but the two I was most impressed with were Gellar, who finally sheds her own chrysalis showing more of her emotionally dramatic side, and Fraser, who has a morbid sense of depression and frustration just on his face alone. Also keep an eye on his actions, for his ability has much more to it than meets the eye and to me, was the pivotal element that guided the events leading up to the grand finale.
The film itself is relatively short, clocking in at a ninety-five minute running time, which might be its only real flaw. I like movies that aren't too long, but in this case it only gives each of the four main characters roughly twenty minutes or so of heavy-duty screen time, not counting the brief cameos they make in the other stories. Stretching it out a little could have added more depth to the characters so they could break out of their stereotypical shells. Maybe the director intended the cast to be more one-dimensional to focus on the emotional aspect, but I just thought that some things could have been fleshed out a bit more. Especially Kevin Bacon, who oddly has the least time on camera.
Before I wrap up my review, I have one last word of caution about the film. It's the type of movie where each story arc contains new pieces of the puzzle that slowly fall into place and eventually comes around full circle. So if you have to raid the fridge or take a bathroom break, it's definitely a good idea to hit the pause button so you don't miss anything that's critical to the story.
The Blu-ray version of "The Air I Breathe" is presented in widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. Blacks are sharp and deep throughout, and I only noticed some very minor cases of noise at one or two points during the movie. That being said, it still is one of the better high definition transfers I've personally seen for the format.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track was very impressive on my home theater system. I felt like the thunder in one scene was really occurring outside my window and the gunshots made a realistic statement. Although I didn't particularly care for some of the music, it was so well tuned and exquisitely balanced that it still sounded excellent. Some of the softer dialogue was a bit hard to make out when characters were whispering to each other, but that only happened once or twice during the whole movie. A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also included, along with optional English and Spanish subtitles.
First up is an audio commentary featuring director/co-writer Jieho Lee, co-writer Bob DeRosa, director of photography Walt Lloyd, and editor Robert Hoffman. It's a pretty standard commentary, but I did find it interesting when Lee pointed out that some of his inspiration came from "The Wizard Of Oz," and I never realized that the emotional concept is also tied to the four elements: air (happiness), fire (pleasure), water (sorrow), and earth (love). If I was looking to impress my college professor by deciphering all of the hidden meanings in a film, "The Air I Breathe" certainly is a gold mine.
There is also a collection of four deleted scenes: "The Dreams," "Living in the Present," "Tony," and "Check-up." The first three weren't anything special, but I thought the last one could have stayed in the picture. As I mentioned earlier, Kevin Bacon's character had the least development, and "Check-up" reinforced the intensity of his love for Gina.
Rounding out the bonus features is a short run of Outtakes (2:07) and a Theatrical Trailer for the film.
The Final Cut:
Judging from the varying reviews for "The Air I Breathe" all over the Internet, it's obviously a film that some people will love and others will hate. I find myself in the first camp, and I'd say that those who didn't like the movie failed to see the messages it was trying to deliver. It's a cerebral film that makes you think, and the puzzle is solved once the last piece falls into place.