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New York Telephone Mélo: Jieho Lee’s The Air I Breathe

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New York Telephone Mélo: Jieho Lee’s <em>The Air I Breathe</em>

The Air I Breathe is a slick little shit-slinger, one of those “we’re all connected” mélos that seem to be the rage these days (check my colleague, Steven Boone’s, encounter with a Euro cousin of the genre—same bat-festival). Not that there’s anything wrong with this particular cinema subgroup, which various and sundry have traced back to Paul Haggis’ Crash, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts; it’s just a particular kind of narrative storytelling (typically in service of, or enslaved to, a massive ensemble cast) where the pretentious reach more often than not exceeds the philosophical grasp.

So it is with the frenetically photographed (by Short Cuts cinematographer Walt Lloyd) yet always watchable The Air I Breathe, which co-writer/director Jieho Lee reports was inspired by a Chinese proverb that pronounces the four basic building blocks of life to be Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Love. In lieu of character names, Lee’s primary cast inhabits each of these singular emotional bases. Forest Whitaker is Happiness, a disgruntled bean counter who impulsively gambles away his savings; Brendan Fraser is Pleasure, a stoic mob thug who can see psychic glimpses of the immediate future; Sarah Michelle Gellar is Sorrow, an up-and-coming pop singer with a checkered past and a decidedly unhappy future; and Kevin Bacon is Love, a doctor forced through unfortunate circumstances to save the unrequited love of his life (Julie Delpy).

For each of these lost souls, it’s only six degrees of Kevin Bacon back to the callous and cruel mob boss Fingers (Andy Garcia), who rules over all of them (whether explicitly or implicitly) with an iron-clad set of digits. Piss Fingers off and he’ll gladly rob you of your indexes, rings, and thumbs with nary a second thought, though he’s no monster (as Garcia near-convincingly states in the film’s best scene), just another guy out to make a living and be good to his extended family (which includes Emile Hirsch as his out-of-town wigger nephew, Tony).

But you can’t outwit Lady Destiny (who should really cash in and write some Robert McKee-like Screenwriting tomes), so Fingers ends up with a whole lotta nothing by the film’s final reel, wherein several disparate narrative threads come ludicrously crashing together. Admittedly, there’s something kinda awesome in seeing Buffy the Vampire Slayer do her best slow-mo Marnie through an air terminal to Paradise, but the implied moral of the story sticks sharply in the craw, tainting whatever goodwill Lee and his excellent cast have thus far engendered. Godliness, so The Air I Breathe finally tells us, is all about the Benjamins.

Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications.