A meek, stuttering accountant (Forest Whitaker) dreams of having a better life. The promise of youth, he's discovered, is a lie, and all most people achieve is a life lacking in any great impact. A butterfly aficionado, he wishes for a transformative experience that will give him the wings to fly away from the mundane. One day, he overhears three of his coworkers discussing a fixed horse race. A runner named Butterfly has been set up to win and will pay out 8-to-1. It's too much of a coincidence, right? This is the chance he has been waiting for. It's the butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world, sending a wind of change straight at our accountant.
Films about "the butterfly effect" could probably constitute their own genre at this point, so in that sense, Jieho Lee's The Air I Breathe is nothing new. All lives are linked, what one person does effects another, setting off a chain reaction of events that, when put together, form a whole experience. This is a concept that has been done well (Short Cuts, 13 Conversations About One Thing), and one that has been done poorly (Babel). In the worst hands, the idea is twee and overly precious, and seemingly, Lee is using The Air I Breathe to put a snub-nosed revolver to the concept's head and blow its brains out. His invented lives are all connected by crime, a throwback to the harsh fatalism of old film noir. Seemingly, the writer/director is popping the balloon on this hope-filled lie. Life is not connected, it's a series of seemingly random meetings, and though there is cause and effect, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. In the end, we're all doomed, so what does it matter anyway?
Unfortunately, in the final act, Lee takes off his leather jacket to reveal a fuzzy cardigan underneath. His is not a tough film, but yet another hearts-and-flowers affirmation of how the good will out, with true rewards going to those with true intentions. With one ridiculously implausible scene involving Kevin Bacon, a roof, and a television antenna, The Air I Breathe puts too much pressure on our suspension of disbelief, making it impossible to stay afloat and very nearly blowing the whole thing. On the close-but-no-cigar scale, The Air I Breathe is one of those cheap, cherry-flavored cigarillos, even though it fancies itself a dangerously subversive Cuban.
The Air I Breathe is a collection of four short stories entitled "Happiness," "Pleasure," "Sorrow," and "Love." Each story features one character that will somehow cross paths with the others, each character receiving no name, instead being credited to their respective emotions. Thus, Whittaker is Happiness, while Brendan Fraser is Pleasure, Sarah Michelle Gellar is Sorrow, and Kevin Bacon is Love. (There's an ironic T-shirt waiting to happen. "Kevin Bacon is Love.") Whittaker's take-action sequence is over in a delirious flash, while the Bacon bits are what nearly ruin the movie at the end.
This leaves the intertwined stories of Brendan Fraser and Sarah Michelle Gellar in the middle, and what saves The Air I Breathe is that this meat in the cinematic sandwich tastes pretty good. Fraser plays a mob enforcer with the ability to foresee the future. Not all of the future, but just enough to get him through a scrape. In one of those excellent quiet performances that this actor doesn't get enough credit for, Fraser works the city collecting money for his boss, the sadistic Fingers (a feral Andy Garcia, reliably good as the heavy). Always knowing what is going to happen and being fully aware that he can't change the course of human events, Fraser has become content to just roll along, much like Forest Whittaker, awaiting the day he sees a chance for something greater.
That chance comes along in the form of Trista (not her real name), a sugary pop singer whose contract has been given to Fingers as payment for a gambling debt. This is the second time in recent memory that Sarah Michelle Gellar has played a tarty teenybopper, and it works much better for her this time around than it did in the stinky Southland Tales. In fact, I'd like to go on record as saying how good it is to see Gellar in a decent movie for once. Her mutli-faceted turn in The Air I Breathe reminds us that she's much better than the junk her agents somehow convince her to act in. Her character here has the deepest emotional arc, and she hits all the right notes.
There are several turns The Air I Breathe could have taken to maintain its harder surface. Hell, there was a plastic surgeon character (Clark Gregg) in "Love," and many a good hardboiled classic involves a character escaping using plastic surgery. Even that would have been better than the pretty bow Jieho Lee used to tie up his debut motion picture. Why give your story such existential heft in order to just toss it in the New Age bargain bin when it really counts?
Despite its fourth-quarter failings, I'm still going to recommend The Air I Breathe, albeit mildly. There is enough in the first three stories that kept me from feeling totally ripped off, and as far as the butterfly-effect genre goes, there's nothing so egregious in the final stages as to make this film any worse than some of its more cloying predecessors. Also, the actors do such fine work, it would be a shame if they didn't get some recognition. There is still a satisfying smoke to be gotten from a cigarillo, even if it doesn't have the fully robust flavor required.