Veronica Lake acidly remarked in Sullivan's Travels, "There's nothing like a deep dish movie to drive you out in the open." Jieho Lee
's feature film debut, The Air I Breathe, is so deep dish that after it's theatrical run it will probably be found in the frozen chicken pot pie section of your local supermarket.
Supposedly based on an ancient Chinese proverb about the four pillars of life -- Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Love -- Lee's film embodies these four emotions into four killingly stereotypical characters played by Forest Whitaker
, Brendan Fraser
, Sarah Michelle Gellar
, and Kevin Bacon
, handing them their own stories interconnected in a Tarantino
-esque roundelay of increasingly absurd coincidences. But even though the film is unrelentingly bleak and despairing and is even bracketed by weeping, all the storylines in the film lead to Sarah Michelle Gellar taking a vacation. It's Sarah Michelle Gellar's world and we just live in it. Article continues below
The festivities begin with Forest Whitaker embodying "Happiness" as an ever-sweating stockbroker fed up with his lonely, miserable life who bets his bankroll on a horse and winds up owing mob boss Fingers (Andy Garcia
in Ocean's 11 mode) big time with disastrous (albeit liberating) results. Brendan Fraser then embodies "Pleasure," a henchman working for Fingers who has the ability to flash forward into the future to see what happens next. This gift works well for him until he takes Fingers' idiot nephew Tony (Emile Hirsch
) to a whorehouse and ends up getting beaten to a bloody pulp. Next up is Sarah Michelle Gellar as "Sorrow," a Lindsay Lohanesque celebrity drunkard, whose contract has been bought up by the nefarious Fingers. Pleasure, recovering from his beating, is told to look after Sorrow, and it is not long before they are an item, invoking the wrath of Fingers. But the best is saved for last with Kevin Bacon as "Love" (not Buddy Love, just Love), a doctor pining for his true love, Gina (Julie Delpy
), an epidemiologist who gets bitten while squeezing serum from a poisonous snake. Gina is given 24 hours to live unless she receives a blood transfusion. Now the coincidences pile up like a bumper car collision: veins must be opened to mine a rare blood type; a last-minute race to rescue a jumper from the roof of a tall building; even a tribute to Linda Blair's soft shoe number from Exorcist II: The Heretic. Like Thelma Ritter remarked in All About Eve, "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."
Lee and co-writer Bob DeRosa churn and mix the old neo-noir stereotypes into a bubbling gumbo and the top-flight cast tries hard to pull it off. But Lee is in a bizarro world, with characters spouting abstruse hogwash that signifies nothing but creative bankruptcy. Fraser remarks in voice over "Every man has his destiny. He can't stop it. Even if he sees it coming." But then he doesn't see it coming. The filmmakers don't see it coming either; characters in the film are asked why they do things and the response is always, "I don't know." Too risky to have the characters actually sit back and talk to one another, Lee opts for an hyperactive camera and kinetic HD effects to dance over the stupefying plot lines. It's the old Hollywood film school flim-flam act -- keep the damned thing hopping, skipping, and jumping and the audience will be too bamboozled to sit back and wonder why.
By the time in the film when close-ups of Whitaker, Fraser, and Bacon all slow dissolve into one another as Gellar sashays through an airport terminal, these conjunctions of the stars had been hammered into such absurd juxtapositions that The Air I Breathe becomes not a nihilistic work of cinematic art, but a laugh-out-loud slapstick free-for-all.
Much to the chagrin of the filmmakers, no doubt.