REVIEW: The Air I Breathe (Jieho Lee, 2007)

Happiness is trapped. Pleasure is desired but subverted. Sorrow is sequestered and exploited. Love, though aimless, redeems all. Some of the most basic yet endlessly intricate facets of emotion play subject as Jieho Lee directs a troupe of talent led by Forest Whitaker, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Kevin Bacon in this four-part, noir ballad.

Cleverly contrived, meagerly budgeted vignette films, particularly of the ensemble variety, have become somewhat of a fad over the recent decade, presumably on the heels of Paul Thomas Anderson's artistic success with his unsurpassable Magnolia. Although certain outings such as the multiplex-enchanting Love, Actually and the forgettably Academy-awarded Crash have reached large audiences, for the most part films of this breed go widely unnoticed. The Air I Breathe and its hapless characters may fall in line with the latter group but maintain a leg or two up on their peers.

Yes, The Air I Breathe is contrived and could seem aimless for much of its runtime, but Lee is apparently well aware of these facts and avoids becoming preachy or pointless. Where other films' stories tend to interconnect merely for the sake of superficially shocking viewers, Air fastidiously ensures each crossed path begets deeper insight into the human condition. The primary characters are named for feelings they seem aimed for - Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow and Love - and represent those feelings' respective relevance in modern society. Their dealings with one another could make fodder for a college psych course.

Each actor, here placed within aspiration-subduing binds, calls forth a dark side in effort to reach for brighter pastures. Whitaker, seemingly ever-ready to reveal new depths of nuance, sells himself brilliantly as the unconfident hopeful. Fraser steps in to one of his better roles of late as a mysterious strong-arm with an unusual ability. Gellar further broadens her range beyond cheeky vampire slaying and Bacon Bacons it up, which is no cause for complaint. As these central four carry out their stories, supporting cast member Andy Garcia takes on a part he was born to play while Emile Hirsch proves yet again he is part of Hollywood youth's superior stable.

Ultimately, however, this promising and intriguing fare doesn't quite break the seal preventing it from becoming great. It does manage poignancy and, at a base level, moderate entertainment even if it fails to excel in either directive. A satisfactory motion picture poem, the film takes cues from contemporaries such as Iñárritu, Tarantino and the aforementioned Anderson, at times improving upon them although never entirely greeting its potential. In any case it exists as a worthy conversation piece and, if nothing else, a shining point in a handful of actors' filmographies.

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