It says much about the failed dramatic strivings of “The Air I Breathe” that at a press screening — an occasion for the most part free of audible displays of emotion since critics like to play their cards close to the vest — Jieho Lee‘s feature debut (co-scripted by Bob DeRosa) met with hoots of laughter the likes of which I’ve never before heard in that notoriously solemn setting. Based, according to the press release, on a Chinese proverb representing “four emotional cornerstones of life” — Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Love, each dedicated its own vignette though the stories, of course, overlap — the movie stars numerous B-list celebrities including, amongst others, Sarah Michelle Gellar as a smug, spoiled pop starlet, Brendan Fraser as a hitman who can see the future, Andy Garcia as a crime boss named “Fingers” . . . Did I mention this is a drama?
Forget that “Air” only tenuously explores the topics indicated by its chapter headings, and ignore the superficial Eastern profundity grafted onto the proceedings by its declared origins — the flick so ecstatically basks in cliches of plot, character, dialogue, and MTV-styled technique (slap-dashed, overly soundtracked) that it makes you go hmm for other reasons: Are you watching a hack job lousy with self-importance — or else a brilliant camp impression of we’re-all-connected generic tropes? A few instances point waveringly to the latter possibility, such as when Gellar, her career held captive after her agent pays off his debts by transferring her contract to Fingers, seeks refuge with henchman Fraser: Gesturing to one of the bodily cuts that are part and parcel of his chosen profession, she remarks, “Did you know that scars are the road map to the soul?,” and the faintest glimmer of self-conscious cheesiness creeps into the line-reading. Stretching credulity further, in a dream/flashback, we see SMG’s dad, dancing deliriously in slicker and umbrella (in slow-motion, in the pouring rain, to sentimental music) after dropping his young daughter off at the school bus — only to get pummeled by an oncoming car, right in front of the cherub. Rupturing the narrative with its heightened ridiculousness, the scenario leaves you no choice but to consider: They can’t possibly be serious.
Alas, every such moment illuminating the path towards a possibly redemptive comedic reading is countered — nay, trounced — by its unwinking opposite. To wit, my favorite line, delivered with straight-faced gravitas by Fraser: “You can get far enough away that even Fingers can’t touch you.” Coming in a close second: Kevin Bacon (playing a doctor), on the phone with friend and husband of Julie Delpy — of rare blood type and in need of a transfusion after being bitten by a snake — demands, without so much as a hello, “Did [she] keep any of her old blood in storage?!” The situation soon builds up to a scene as by-the-book Symbolic as you can get, as the movie makes its (spoiler alert) It All Comes Together bid with Gellar ascending the hospital stairs to the roof, her face a Mask of Bitter Resolve and body swathed in diaphanous white sheets. As she prepares to jump, silhouetted majestically (natch) against the rosy-hued skyline, Bacon accosts her; apparently, the girl has the necessary blood type to save the day — we know so because she inexplicably, inanely said so in a television interview (!). In the face of such travesty, you gotta give up the game: No subversive genius here, just a sad stab at Art.
The mad dash to summarize the year in film is only now coming to an end, but allow me to rush ahead and prematurely pronounce “The Air I Breathe” the best bad movie I’ll see in ’08: So risibly pompous it has the meta-effect of making filmic conventions translucent, it really can’t get much better (i.e., worse) than this.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a staff writer at Reverse Shot.]