By Matt Singer
[Photo: “The Air I Breathe,” ThinkFilm, 2008]
Why do so many “independent” movies look and sound exactly alike? Isn’t that kind of a contradiction with the whole independent thing? Nothing in “The Air I Breathe” feels particularly indie; most everything in it is familiar. For any audience member who spends a significant portion of their free time in the arthouse, “Deja Vu” would make a fine alternate title.
The plot is one of those contraptions where four seemingly unrelated stories are all inherently intertwined. Such films try to imbue the minutia of the everyday with a kind of spiritual importance everything means something, they insist, even if we don’t realize it at first. And perhaps it does. But at this point, it is also one of the most tiresome of indie movie clichés. Eventually, there will so many of these movies that some young director will come full circle and rebel against the indie establishment by creating a work about how one person’s horrible existence has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the horrible existence of the person they meet at a bus stop.
But that day has not come yet. Instead, we still live in a world where the fates of Forest Whitaker, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Kevin Bacon all rest on one another, though they are completely unaware of that fact. Whitaker is a man in desperate need of cash; Fraser is a debt collector for a gangster (Andy Garcia) to whom Whitaker owes money, and he can also see the future. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a less ironic version of Krysta Now from “Southland Tales” and falls for Fraser, but finds herself also in debt to Garcia. And Bacon needs to save his wife’s life by acquiring blood of a very rare type (bonus points to you, dear reader, if you can guess which other character has said very rare blood type).
Each section has its own title: they are, in order, “Happiness,” “Pleasure,” “Sorrow” and “Love.” Characters appear briefly in one story and then get fleshed out in others. To my shock, the only portion that works at all was Fraser’s; he gives an admirable performance amongst truly adverse circumstances. Grappling with his leaden dialogue (“Sometimes things you can’t change end up changing you”) and a character that is, yes, both a mob heavy and a clairvoyant, Fraser manages to deliver a certain amount of gravitas and makes you believe, despite all other visual and verbal evidence to the contrary, that he’s appearing in a genuinely hard-boiled crime story. In a perfect world, it’d be something that would earn “The Mummy” star some new, more interesting work and pull him from the depths of the kiddie film ghetto that dominates his résumé. Rarely have I been more impressed by an actor and less impressed by a film as a whole.
Beyond the hackneyed premise, “The Air I Breathe” also contains numerous uses of a trick so tired that its mere presence can ruin an entire movie. It’s the gag, so prevalent in recent years, where a character blithely walks in the street when, out of nowhere, they are run over by a speeding car. You can always tell it’s going to happen because the person is standing in the middle of the street, looking extremely happy when all of the sound drops out of the soundtrack; the better to give the impact extra shock value. It’s supposed to give viewers a jolt, but the ploy is so played out that only the most naïve audience members (and of course, these doofy, careless pedestrians) don’t see it coming. Please, I beg you moviemakers. No more.
“The Air I Breathe” is occasionally amusing; particularly when Kevin Bacon’s wife refuses to wear her protective suit while working with deadly snakes. “I’ll be fine!” she insists, whereupon she is promptly bitten. And we’re supposed to care about this future Darwin Award winner? Connecting four mediocre stories together does not necessarily make them more interesting. Longer, sure. But interesting? Not so much.