Although ‘Crash’ and ‘Babel’ were controversial films that split audiences and critics alike, they scored enough award recognition and positive word-of-mouth to make other studios see green. Looking to make a quick buck and catch the attention of the nominations circuit, studios greenlit a slew of copycat scripts that have begun to appear in video stores and theaters over the last few months. The ingredients are simple: take an intriguing ensemble cast, combine these actors with a script that focuses on humanity’s interconnectivity, and pour in copious amounts of pretentious symbology and metaphysics for flavor. The result is yet another divisive film that some will swear is a dazzling exploration of truth, society, and the human experience, and others will declare a pompous study of irrelevant characters and situations.
The latest dose of such intellectual masturbation comes in the form of ‘The Air I Breathe,’ a meandering meditation on the interconnectivity of man divided into four vignettes. Forest Whitaker explores “Happiness” as a businessman who bets everything he owns on a sure thing and loses. He’s given just two weeks to pay off his newly acquired gambling debt before an unmerciful gangster named Fingers (Andy Garcia) takes matters into his own hands. Brendan Fraser tackles “Pleasure” as a man who can literally see the future. Employed by a local thug who takes advantage of his strange gift, Fraser’s baffled by his inability to predict the fate of a pop singer. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays said diva in “Sorrow,” an examination of a woman searching for love and freedom through a series of unfortunate events. Finally, Kevin Bacon discovers “Love” as a doctor whose childhood sweetheart (Julie Delpy) is on death’s bed after a snake bite. Transforming foreshadowing into a blatant plot device, the doctor must find someone who shares the same rare bloodtype as his longtime friend.
Ugh. I can’t even begin to convey how much I loathed ‘The Air I Breathe.’ Pretentious from start to finish, director Jieho Lee works overtime to showcase his script’s self-perceived brilliance, instead of actually developing decent characters or coherent plot points. Despite a laundry list of remarkable performers, Lee merely runs through the paces and tosses out flimsy revelations about mankind, its spiritual bankruptcy, and its inability to thrive. His take on “Happiness” is the best of the bunch, but lacks impact or context. “Pleasure” offers a pathetic investigation of a crucial emotion that could have been unraveled with far more effective subplots and characterizations. Even Lee’s “Love” is a one-note fairy tale that fails to unite the film’s despondent fragments into a masterpiece. Whitaker, Fraser, and Bacon do an incredible job considering the paper thin material they’re forced to sludge through, but even their best isn’t strong enough to overcome their director’s faulty ambitions.
”Sorrow” is the most disappointing of all. Designed to develop a bridge between the film’s social casualties and fate itself, Gellar’s vignette is comprised of cheap exposition and hollow associations that fail to bring the remaining characters in line with one another. This segment’s tone not only feels disconnected from the rest of the film, its narrow allusions and paltry assertions derail everything “Happiness” had established. Gellar stumbles through each scene on auto-pilot, delivering her lines with the conviction of an eighth-grade algebra teacher. I cringed through long stretches of the film -- a reaction I haven’t had to one of Gellar’s performances since I survived Richard Kelly’s dreadful ‘Southland Tales.’
Considering the fact that ‘The Air I Breathe’ is only 95 minutes long, I was astonished by how much time Lee devotes to absolutely nothing. His characters have nothing of relevance to say about life or death, his script offers no warning, hope, or satisfying conclusions, and his leering camera makes it clear that he’s more obsessed with impressing his audience than delivering on his intentions. As it stands, ‘The Air I Breathe’ is a perfect example of style over substance -- it not only has nothing to say about the lives we lead, it undermines its own purpose without ever offering any real truth.
Arriving on Blu-ray with a technically proficient 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, ‘The Air I Breathe’ doesn’t offer the most breathtaking encode I’ve ever seen, but it presents the film’s captivating cinematography with confidence and dependability. While I wasn’t wowed by the film’s palette, colors are strong, contrast is spot on, and blacks are generally deep and inky. To my relief, skintones are reasonably warm throughout the film, rarely succumbing to the dreary grays and blues that overwhelm the rest of the picture. Depth is also quite remarkable courtesy of notable shadow delineation and crisp texture detail. While edges and facial features aren’t as sharp as one might expect from a modern film’s high-def presentation, there are plenty of crystal clear shots that reveal the most insignificant on-screen details. The transfer thankfully doesn’t suffer from wayward source noise, artifacting, or edge enhancement.
Of course, the film’s indie aesthetic leads to occasionally bland and flat visuals -- many shots in the Forest Whitaker segment, in particular, look good but lack the three-dimensional pop exhibited by scenes in other vignettes. Inconsistent grain and errant softness creep into the picture as well, leaving several shots to rise and fall on the merits of the filmmakers’ vision, rather than the propensities of the transfer. All in all, the BD edition of ‘The Air I Breathe’ will satisfy fans looking for a faithful presentation that easily tops the dull and murky DVD, but it will fail to win over anyone who isn’t already in love with the film itself.
’The Air I Breathe’ features a fairly impressive DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that manages to deliver an engaging soundfield despite the film’s chatty soundscape. Dialogue is crisp, the LFE channel produces natural and resonant thooms, and the rear speakers undergird most scenes with delicate ambiance and convincing acoustics. There isn’t a lot of movement in the soundfield, but kinetic elements take advantage of transparent pans and flawless accuracy. Don’t misunderstand, the track’s sonics aren’t underwhelming, they simply remain true to the tone of the story. Viewers won’t encounter regular gunfire, car chases, or any number of bombastic effects -- as it stands, the film’s eclectic music seems to have received the most attention from its sound designers. Instead, the track relies on creating a believable space that submerges listeners into the world of the film and envelops them in a realistic series of interior and exterior environments.
Sure, I encountered a few minor problems, but they’re relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Bits of dialogue are difficult to hear, the mix often prioritizes the film’s music over other key sound effects, and a few scenes suffer from obvious looping and tinny voices. Even so, fans won’t find a lot to complain about here -- this DTS HD MA track handles everything thrown its way without succumbing to the sort of lackluster production values that seems to haunt indie sound design.
’The Air I Breathe’ meanders onto Blu-ray with the same anemic supplements that appear on the DVD. The video content is presented in standard definition, the package feels incomplete without a proper behind-the-scenes featurette, and the commentary will only appeal to those who already fell in love with the film.
’The Air I Breathe’ is a god-awful study of happiness, pleasure, sorrow, and love that never really reveals anything of substance about any of its subjects. The Blu-ray edition fares a bit better, but still comes up short. It features a decent (albeit underwhelming) video transfer, a noteworthy DTS HD MA audio track, and a handful of special features that have less to offer than the film itself. Be sure to rent this one long before you consider a purchase -- even if you adored ‘Crash’ and ‘Babel,’ it’s very unlikely ‘The Air I Breathe’ will strike a similar chord.