The Air I Breathe

 [, Jan 25, 2008]

“The Air I Breathe”

Stars: 2

Cast: Kevin Bacon (Love), Forest Whitaker (Happiness), Brendan Fraser (Pleasure), Sara Michelle Gellar (Sorrow), Andy Garcia (Fingers)

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.

(I puzzled about why I couldn’t think of earlier examples, though there are many, like “Stagecoach” or “Bus Stop,” that start at the other end: they begin by throwing together a crowd of disparate types in a fixed setting. My hunch is that drawstring stories really couldn’t have been presented on stage, and it took awhile for the idea to occur to filmmakers.)

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.) (Interestingly, a contributor to a discussion on says that he is Chinese, and the filmmakers got it wrong: should be Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Anger.)

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 segment 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, and 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 of 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 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.

Talk About It:

1. Pleasure looks like he takes little pleasure in anything. We come to understand that this is because he can see the future in a brief, fragmented way, but can’t do anything to change it. Because of this, 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.” Do you think that it would be oppressive 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?

2. 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 would respond to questions like these? How might such treatment change the way we view celebrities?

3. The line occurs twice that “Scars are the roadmap to the soul.” Is this true? What might be a better “roadmap”—wrinkles, perhaps? Why?

Family Corner: 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. Rough language throughout.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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