"The Air I Breathe" is an ensemble piece about a psychic gangster and a chinese proverb. I can't think of another story that has ever followed this formula, and so I loved it from the start, from the first powerful beats of the soundtrack, as an original and beautiful, unheard new story. It is fresh in most every way. It is deep, but it will not beat you over the head with its message. Like a chinese proverb it politely opens a door to greater wisdom. It's up to the viewer to step inside.
Forest Whitaker is tremendous. One of the only flaws with this show is that he's not in it more, though from a storytelling perspective it makes sense. All of the performances are stellar, as would be expected from Whitaker, Bacon and Garcia, but equally stunning are Brendan Fraser and Sarah Gellar, both of whom have given the best acting performances of their young careers in this film. I'm not familiar with Emile Hirsch or Julie Delpy, but they are both strong in supporting roles.
There is a lot going on here, on multiple levels, and so it is only natural that the movie seems a little too short. Bacon's story in particular might use some further fleshing, especially as he's such a joy to watch. Again, however, like a chinese proverb it must be concise. The undercurrent matters more than the surface, and some viewers will be turned off by this. When the proverb comes full circle, the film's purpose is spent, and audiences waiting for the resolution of a typical three act play will likely find the ending a touch too quick, as there are numerous story threads that never get wrapped up. But the story here is the vessel, not the wine.
It isn't perfect. It's not Hamlet, but I'd put it just a notch beneath American Beauty or Crouching Tiger as one of the more beautiful and literate experiences I've seen lately.
Many will view it with the same eyes that saw Scarface and miss a lot. Nothing against the brilliance of Scarface, but this is a gangster flick of a very different sort. After I watched it the first time, I wasn't sure just what I'd seen. Then I thought it through, and realized some of its subtle brilliance. I'll tell you what I mean, but first:
****Watch it Once at least before you Read This****
"The Air I Breathe" What does that mean?
Whitaker plays Happiness, and his epiphany (the moment when he discovers himself) takes place at both the beginning and ending of the film. The rest of the story is just a deeper examination of this cyclical change, as he discovers in a heart-wrenching instant that everything he has lived for is wrong, that uncertainty is beautiful, pleasure is not found in lust but in the moment of transition, that this day's sorrow is pregnant with tomorrow's joy, and that real selfless love is the constant to carry us through. This transition destroys him, and sets him free.
Gellar (also known as Trista, who refuses to reveal her true name--as suffering is the place where lovers secretly meet, or "tryst") is Sorrow, the counterpart to Whitaker's Happiness, and as such she mirrors his transition. His death brings her freedom. She becomes the butterfly to his caterpillar. The instruments of this change are Fraser's Pleasure and Bacon's Love, also counterparts.
Pleasure is the more fleshed of these two. In one of the movie's more interesting twists he can see the future. There is no uncertainty for him, and, despite much sex and violence, no pleasure, until Sorrow enters his life on the same day as Uncertainty. When he meets Trista his visions begin to fail him, but for the first time he begins to live. He turns from his boss, Garcia's Fingers, to give hope to Sorrow--just as Whitaker turns from his life in pursuit of money (Fingers represents Greed as the villain of the piece), at the last moment accepting that it will never free him of suffering. Fraser comes to accept this fact of life, and this acceptance allows him to find . . . He impregnates Gellar's character before he is killed, leading to the final conflict of the tale, when Sorrow crosses paths with Love.
Bacon's Love is pained yet true. It is not the classical love of self-sacrifice and explosive dramatics, but the real love of patience, trust and constant creative expression. It is also an abandoned, lonely yet strong Love. The object of his affection is married to a plastic surgeon (bastardizing his emotion in favor of shallow ideals built around the drive for money, again greed being the villain), and she is dying, bit by a snake (the symbolism there is easy enough) and nothing can save her but the transfusion of a very rare (one in a million) blood type, which happens to be shared by our very own Trista. That is: Sorrow is the only one that bleeds right. Sorrow, meanwhile, is preparing to throw herself from the roof of the hospital where Love works as a hopeless and desperate surgeon. In short: Love saves Sorrow by giving her a reason for being, as she saves him by bleeding, feeding new life into his dream, and, cyclically, giving him a reason for being.
That's asian philosphy for ya!
So Happiness gives up the money he stole, gives up his life even, throwing it from the roof where he is surrounded by snipers. The snipers are Fingers. Whitaker finally owns his "money" only when he gives it away. It lands in the lap of Sorrow, who is thus empowered to move forward, carrying the unborn child of Pleasure, into a future made uncertain by, as much as it is made worthwhile by . . . Love.
Whew. Props to anyone who made it through that. But there's one piece still missing. What is "The Air I Breathe"?
It is transition. It is the moment of change. It is the butterfly emerging from its cocoon. It is cyclical. It is constant. It is like breathing.
It is subtly brilliant, like a good asian proverb should be. It is secretly beautiful, like Pleasure, like Happiness, like Love . . . like Sorrow.