Jeez, is this the `90s? Is there a Clinton in the White House? Is Candlebox still a Top 40 powerhouse? Then why am I watching a non-linear drama in which four L.A. strangers cross paths in a sad-sweet intersection of loss, sacrifice and redemption?
To be fair, maybe the high-concept, "Magnolia"-style outreach-saga isn't quite THAT out of fashion — after all, it was just three years ago that the most celebrated offender, "Crash," took home a best picture Oscar. It was a wholly out-of-proportion honor, but at least writer-director Paul Haggis' reach and grasp were about equal.
Sadly, the same does not apply to writer-director Jieho Lee in "The Air I Breathe," an emotionally and thematically ambitious drama that falls far short of the filmmaker's soul-shaking aspirations. Populated by clairvoyant mob goons and crisis-stricken pop stars, it gives off the puzzling, pungent aroma of a film with more earnestness than sense. Lee (a Harvard man, here making his directorial debut) and co-writer Bob DeRosa partition the story into four vignettes, each labeled — the press notes tell me — to reflect the cornerstone human emotions of an ancient Chinese proverb.
"Happiness" stars sad-eyed Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland") as a self-loathing stockbroker who bets his life on a racehorse. "Pleasure" involves a Cassandra-like mob heavy (Brendan Fraser) cursed with the gift of foresight. In "Sorrow," a B-list pop siren (Sarah Michelle Gellar) goes into hiding when her management contract is seized up by a sadistic gangster (Andy Garcia); and in "Love," a humble emergency room doctor (Kevin Bacon) scrambles to find a rare blood-type to save a former lover (Julie Delpy).
The connective tissue, as it were, is the idea that people must relieve themselves of expectation, baggage and routine to find harmony. "Losing everything can be a liberating experience," muses Whitaker shortly after his betting mishap. That may be the case, but it doesn't really explain why this fidgety, conflict-averse office drone would suddenly march into a bank with a handgun. I mean, such a transformation is feasible — Lee just doesn't afford Whitaker enough screen-time to let it unfold organically.
(Talk about not playing to your strengths — how do you short shrift an Oscar winner?) Unfortunately, "The Air I Breathe" is humid with exaggeration and misplaced impulse, from the way Bacon freaks out after Delpy is poisoned by a snake (an absurd spectacle that suggests a bad Mexican soap opera) to the scene where Garcia roughs up Gellar in her designer mansion. (One must wonder: Is this how Tommy Mattola snagged Mariah?)
There are also moments of delicate, unintentional humor, like the one in which Gellar finds Fraser's brass knuckles and gives them a nice little pet. Only "Into the Wild" star Emile Hirsch, great as Garcia's randy nephew, escapes unscathed.
Undoubtedly, Lee has assembled a first-rate cast, but considering the quality of the final product, he might hard-pressed to repeat the feat. Garcia looks particularly silly, and typecast, as the suave villain. Between this and "Ocean's Eleven," it seems like the guy never goes anywhere without a tux.