The Air I Breathe

The Air I Breathe The Air I Breathe
Forest Whitaker, Sarah Michelle Gellar

3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

The 2008 crime drama 'The Air I Breathe' has nothing to do with the Hollies 1974 song (That was 'The Air That I Breathe'), but it's just as big a hit.

The film breaks down into four segments focusing on four characters. 'Happiness' is played by Forest Whitaker, 'Pleasure' by Brendan Fraser, 'Sorrow' by Sarah Michelle Geller, and 'Love' by Kevin Bacon. None of the characters names are mentioned in the film (proving you can go through life calling people 'Hey You!' 'Buddy,' or 'Yo, Man!'). Geller's character is referred to by her stage name, Trista, and at least two characters, an ambushing interviewer and 'Pleasure' (Fraser), become fixated on trying to get her to tell them what her real name is. The film's unifying character is 'Fingers,' played with zeal by Andy Garcia.

Whitaker's 'Happiness' is a broker fascinated by butterflies. His life is a bore, his co-workers ridicule him, and he spends his nights dumb-dusted in front of the TV. He makes stock transactions, earning millions for others, including 'Pleasure' (Brendan Fraser), who challenges him to take a chance for once in his life. After over hearing his co-workers talking about a 'sure thing' in an upcoming horse race, Happiness bets over his head, borrowing $50,000 from Fingers. In a tragic turn of events the horse loses, and Fingers gives Happiness an ultimatum, come up with the money or find out how he got his nickname. Fingers gives Happiness a hint by demonstrating on another bettor in arrears who hasn't paid his debt.

Fingers: You know why they call me fingers?
Happiness: No.
Fingers: Well, Mr. Parks knows why they call me "Fingers" because two weeks ago he came by because he felt like gambling. He lost and neglected paying what he owes me. What does he do? He tries to run. What is it with you guys? You come here, you lose, and I gotta come here and be the bad guy. I can't enjoy the opera because I gotta come here and be the bad guy. You think I enjoy this?
Happiness: You have no choice.

Happiness decides to rob a bank, and the joy of the act provides him true happiness and freedom. (The end result, not so much.)

Fraser's 'Pleasure' serves as Fingers' muscle, collecting his debts through persuasion whenever possible, but otherwise using more convincing conventional methods. Pleasure has the ability to see into the future, although he's powerless to change it. Pleasure is anything but ' an unsmiling, dour man comprised of grunts and one word responses. When he and his brother children they were jumped by neighborhood bullies. Able to foresee the punches the bullies were going to throw, Pleasure beat up both boys, only to have his brother die accidentally. He's lived with guilt ever since. He meets Trista, a soul-less pop star under contract to Fingers, and immediately becomes fascinated with her when he discovers he can't see her future. ('The girl with the future I can't see enters my life. On the same day, my visions fail me for the first time.'). When Fingers threatens to kill Trista unless she goes out on the road to repay her debts, Pleasure hides her in his apartment, setting up an inevitable showdown between the two men.

The third plot turns the spotlight on Trista, and viewers get to see her relationships with Sorrow and Fingers unfold from her point of view. Kevin Bacon plays 'Love' a doctor (hey, Dr. Love) in the weakest of the four plots. He's besotted with his best friend's wife Gina, (an indolent Julie Delpy), and apparently has been for a very long time. (Can you say, time to move on, loser?) Gina, a brilliant, beautiful biologist (is there any other kind in the movies?) gets bitten by a poisonous snake and has only hours to live unless she gets a transfusion of rare blood. A seemingly innocuous comment made by Trista in an interview may be the key to saving Gina's life.

Okay, the poisonous snake thing is a real stretch, even more so than a man who can see into the future and can't elevate himself to a higher station in life than thug. But you'll like the way the plots intertwine. Whitaker's character is knocked to the ground as he tries to escape the police at the beginning of the movie and the driver is revealed at its conclusion, neatly tying together the fates of the two characters.

I don't subscribe to the blather that our birth signs, crevices in our hands, or bumps on or noggins can predict a person's future, but the film is based on the premise that life is based on four emotions ' happiness, pleasure, sorrow and love. (They forgot lust and passion, but I guess you could file them under pleasure.) If you believe in cosmic claptrap grasshopper, such as the obvious significance of the butterflies in the first segment, then 'The Air I Breathe' will take on a far heavier meaning. I just liked the way the plots and characters wind up weaving together.

The origin of Fingers' nickname is one of the touches at twisted comedy by writer Jicho Lee (who also directed the film) and Bob DeRosa. You already know how Happiness thinks Fingers got his title. In the 'Pleasure' segment, Fingers' nephew, Tony, brags to Fraser's character that his uncle earned the tag 'Because all he has to do is snap his fingers and people do what he says.' In 'Love,' Fingers gives Trista his own patently false explanation: 'They call me Fingers because I like to talk with my hands.' You gotta love a character that goes beyond being duplicitous.

Having perfected the ability to play schlubs and desperate losers, Forest Whitaker hutches his shoulders, lowers his gaze, and acts like a sheared sheep. This is the same man who showed joie de vive as the man eating Idi Amin in giving an Oscar winning performance in 'The King of Scotland.' Yeah, he can act circles around other leading men, but more importantly, he knows how to immerse himself in to the skin of whatever character he's playing. Happiness starts out as a 9 to 5 zombie who's never taken a chance in life. He takes a chance, fails, and yet is liberated by the experience, a lesson we can all take to the bank.

Sarah Michelle Geller made her name slaying vampires on TV. Now she's slaying audiences with her outside-of-the-box portrayals. Her character lives a lifetime on screen. Starting out as an empty headed, bitchy pop star, she becomes Fingers' indentured servant, is freed by her love for Pleasure and grows into a strong-willed, compassionate woman who embraces a second chance at life. With this performance Geller can put a stake in the heart of any criticism that she was at her best as a female Van Helsing.

If Geller's acting is a staggering, then Brendan Fraser's is a revelation. We're talking about an actor whose best role was playing a funnier version of Indiana Jones in 'The Mummy.' Fraser's niche has been a crowd pleaser playing oafs ('Bedazzled,' 'Dudley Do-Right'), so who knew this dude could act? Okay, maybe you don't consider playing strong and silent a stretch, but that's all Gary Cooper ever did and there are people out there who swear he could act. In Fraser's case, we're talking about a guy whose reason for being used to be mugging for the camera. Now his role requires him to remain stone-faced, to let a glance, a gesture, or God forbid, actual dialogue represent his character. Give his character the added burden of foresight, and Fraser's got a lot of dramatic tension to convey. (And I wondered, as Tony, Fingers' nephew points out, why Happiness couldn't just predict a few lottery numbers and retire from the loan sharking business.) Although his character's ability to see the future is a fanciful stretch against the rest of the film's vivid reality, Fraser makes it work, because the audience knows his frowning countenance and tight-lipped responses mask a raging sea of inner turmoil.

Kevin Bacon's role of a doctor in love with his best friend's wife is the thinnest of the quartet of stars. He wears his puppy dog love on his sleeve so much you'd think Julia Delphy's character would have politely told him to get a girlfriend long ago. She loves him too, but not enough to wreck her life with the man she married. Bacon has the unenviable task of turning his loser at love character into a hero. The part of me that carried a torch for an unobtainable woman for way to long understood, but you have to extinguish that torch sometime buddy, or else you'll spend the rest of your life walking around with a big 'L' on your forehead. So I didn't buy Bacon's character not being able to move on and find his own Gina after ten years. Bacon's a great actor, but he's undercut by his character's dilemma. Whitaker's character is pathetic, yet pitiable; Bacon's is desperate, and as a result his performance is frantic and contrived. Don't blame Kevin, blame writers Lee and DeRosa for running out of steam.

Andy Garcia's 'Fingers' is yet another gangster type that the actor can convey at will. Although he's ruthless when it comes to his empire, Fingers does cherish his relationship with Fraser's character. The scene in which he realizes Pleasure has betrayed him allows Garcia to display the small acre of humanity within his character. It goes on and off like a light switch, then it's back to the business at hand. Like I said, Garcia knows how to play a hoodlum predator, so his performance is effortless and gratifying.

Kelly Hu is breathtaking in her one scene and animated Emile Hirsch provides homeboy comic relief as Fingers' street-level cousin, whose specialty seems to be paison-ics:

Eddie (Finger's henchman): That the bosses nephew?
Tony (looking at Fingers' desk): What? This f***king thing is huge!
(Pleasure nods yes.)
Eddie: What's he like?
Tony: F***k me! This is just like f***k!
Pleasure: Articulate.

Take a whiff of 'The Air I Breathe.' It's edgy, quirky, and at times decidedly strange. You'll enjoy the rarefied air of Fraser and Geller's stellar performances.



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