I love movies like this. But, sad to say, I didn't love this movie. I hoped I would, but one clunker after another kept accumulating—a hackneyed character here, a stupid line of dialogue there—until it was sounding like a sneaker in a dryer.
That's too bad, because this format has been the foundation of some terrific, thought-provoking films. You take a sizeable number of characters, most of whom have never met, and set their stories in motion. As the multiple plots unfold, each character is being drawn closer to the center, where a resolution awaits that, in the best of these films, can be simultaneously unexpected and inevitable.
Let's coin a term and call them "drawstring" movies, a subset of the genre known as "ensemble" films. Among the best examples are Robert Altman's Nashville (1976) and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999), but even those that fall shorter, like Love Actually (2003) or Grand Canyon (1991), can still tantalize and endear, because the format itself provides such rich possibilities.
Some drawstring films have truly sprawling casts—in Nashville there are 24 main characters—but The Air I Breathe proposes something more tidy. There are four main characters, and they bear the names Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Love. These represent what is termed a "Chinese proverb," that these are the basic four emotions of life. (Seems a bit truncated for a proverb, doesn't it? I'd call it a list.)
As each character is introduced, the emotion he or she represents appears onscreen, though what we're looking at may seem contradictory. For example, the film begins with a shot of Forest Whitaker slumped against a wall, sobbing, holding a gun; then the word "Happiness" flashes onscreen. He tells us in voiceover that in childhood he knew "the secret to a happy life:" obey the rules and work hard. "And if you work hard in school, your reward is—more school." At this point there's a nifty sequence: the camera glides continuously to the right and reveals him, first, as a child writing at his desk in an elementary-school classroom, then as an adolescent in a middle-school classroom, and then as a young adult in a college classroom. "And after more school," his voice goes on, "you are given the best that life has to offer"—the camera comes to rest to reveal him seated in the middle of a huge desk-farm of an office. He's not happy.
Let's continue with this Happiness sequence, because it illustrates what is both faulty and impressive about this film. It won't spoil much, since the scene comes at the beginning and takes only fifteen minutes, but if you want to preserve every bit of suspense, you'd better stop reading here.
In the plus column, we can note that Whitaker is terrific in the role—his "Happiness" is a timid, gentle, habit-bound creature, who quickly wins our sympathy. He happens to be in the bathroom one day when some co-workers duck in to discuss a fixed horse-race. (They glance under the doors but he has pulled his feet up onto the toilet seat.) He decides that he has to take a risk if he's going to achieve happiness, and bets on "Butterfly"—in fact, bets more than he can pay. But the horse stumbles, the race is lost, and Happiness winds up in a shadowy den being threatened by a mob boss. Why did he bet on "Butterfly"? Trembling, he explains: "Because I heard my co-workers … and," voice dropping, "I like butterflies."
There's a lot to admire in the "Happiness" story, and if you stick with the movie you'll continue to get rewards along that line, although in a diminishing train. So what's crummy? The basic thesis of this sequence—for example, that this shy character would arrive at true happiness by robbing a bank and being shot down by cops. It's just not true that taking a risk brings happiness even if you lose, and it would seem the character had already learned this, when the mob boss, Fingers, was shoving him around.
Yep, he's named "Fingers," just one of many elements that might have been generated by a screenwriting-for-dummies software program. Here's some more: a patient climbs the stairs to a hospital roof trailing a 30-foot drape of sheer, flowing white fabric. Where did she get it? Why is she toting it? Why is it suddenly a lot shorter when she gets there? There's no reasonable explanation, but if you guessed that you'll see it floating gently and photogenically through the air later on, you'd be right. One character accidentally killed his brother in childhood, and another saw her dad accidentally killed in childhood; this kind of material is strong and must be used sparingly, because doubling it like this destroys its power.
A character steps off a roof, and another character trying to rescue her slips off the roof as well, and both end up dangling from his grasp of a bent metal pole. Next scene, both are safe inside. I don't believe that kind of thing outside of Road Runner cartoons. A character will die unless she gets a transfusion of an extremely rare blood type; another character just happens to have that blood type, and mentions it on a TV show that a doctor just happens to overhear. That deus should get back in the machina and stay there.
In short, many of the artistic elements in The Air I Breathe are excellent, but too much of the basic framework—the plot, dialogue, and action—is shallow and unconvincing. Unless you are a diehard fan of these actors, you can save your breath. There are better drawstring movies out there.Discussion starters
- Pleasure takes little pleasure in anything, because he can partly see the future but can't do anything to change it. So he says, "I never let myself want anything." When he's severely beaten he shows true pleasure for the first time, because he didn't see it coming. He feels liberated, because now he can believe that his actions can actually have consequences. He says, "I can change someone's life, make it worse or better." What would it be like to be able to foresee an unchangeable future? Would it be better to not have that knowledge, and believe that your actions can direct it? How does this affect the way we think about God's foreknowledge?
- Sorrow is waiting for her TV interview to begin, and the jovial host assures her that he asks questions no one else does. For once, it's true—despite his bouncy demeanor, his questions are tough and make her face the artificiality of her situation. How do you think other celebrities respond to questions like these? How might that change the way we treat celebrities?
- The line occurs twice that "Scars are the roadmap to the soul." Is this true? What might be a better "roadmap"—wrinkles, perhaps? Why?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Air I Breathe is rated R for violence, language and some sexual content/nudity. Episodes of violence are lengthy and lavish, though the impact is lessened by quick cutting that makes it hard to tell exactly what's happening. There is a shadowy, "tasteful" sex scene, and some female nudity in a strip bar. And there's rough language throughout.
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