We all know pretty much what we’re in for when a private equity-funded gangster movie bills itself as a collection of interlocking “fables” inspired by a Chinese proverb, right? I mean, we could just leave it at that?
“The Air I Breathe,” a first feature directed by commercial and music video director Jieho Lee, assigns one of the four key emotions -- which, according to the aforementioned proverb, consist of happiness, sorrow, pleasure and love -- to four characters whose lives intersect over a couple of days in a large city that turns out to be a not entirely unacknowledged but weirdly under-explained Mexico City. Ah, the influence of “Short Cuts,” “Magnolia,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” and their ever diminishing returns.
The cast is high-caliber -- though I’ve never been more embarrassed for Kevin Bacon than in the scene when, playing a doctor, he starts tearing through the blood fridge at the hospital screaming, “She’s gonna die!” But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story, such as it is, is as follows:
Happiness (Forest Whitaker) is a miserable bank employee who spends his evenings scrubbing his bathroom floor with a toothbrush and pondering the self-esteem level of butterflies. (Do they know how beautiful they are when they emerge from the cocoon, or do they think they still look like caterpillars?) Happiness’ main client is a tough guy named (or not really named but known to us, the viewers -- he’s allegorical, OK?) as Pleasure (Brendan Fraser). Pleasure has a knack for investing that apparently has little to do with his ability to see the future, because the only future he can’t see is his own. When Happiness overhears his colleagues talking about a horse in a fixed race, he ponies up more than he can afford to lose on a horse named Butterfly. Butterfly suffers a tumble, however, bringing Happiness into close contact with a gangster named Fingers (Andy Garcia), who happens to be Pleasure’s boss.
In the second vignette, we shift from the travails of Happiness to the vicissitudes of Pleasure, upon whom the boss’ insufferable nephew Tony (Emile Hirsch), an apparent acolyte of Fonzi who struts around combing his hair, is foisted as he prepares to make his nightly rounds shaking down the local merchants. Pleasure’s ability to see the future and thus stay out of harm’s way is compromised after Fingers shows him a photo of a young pop star whose management contract he’s just acquired, so the evening doesn’t go the way he expects it to.
Sorrow, the pop star, is played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, who resents the indentured servitude foisted on her by her manager. Again, Pleasure saves the day. Finally, it’s Sorrow’s turn to do a good deed when the beloved of Love (Bacon), a medical researcher, is bitten by one of her snakes and finds herself with the wrong antidote and a rare blood type. (Hence the refrigerator incident.)
The actors disport themselves admirably, considering. As the unhinged gangster Garcia reins it in more than usual, and the unusually talented Whitaker rends some interest from his portrait of pathological timidity. But with its choppy editing, frantic camera and desaturated imagery, “The Air I Breathe” displays all the aesthetic innovation of a disposable razor commercial. In fact, the whole thing looks like a pirated knockoff -- even the credit sequence looks swiped from “The Sopranos.” A stew of cheap irony, ponderous but meaningless allegory, violence and pretension, the movie is all borrowed style and calculated pandering. It does, however, get more ludicrous by the minute. So in that sense, it’s good for an occasional laugh.
“The Air I Breathe.” MPAA rating: R for violence, language and some sexual content/nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. In limited release.