It is interesting to learn that filmmaker Jieho Lee has a fondness for the ending of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. However, it is not so interesting to realize that he can't let go of this fondness enough to create a genuine film moment of his own. For instance, there is one significant scene in Lee's The Air I Breathe that plays so much like an homage to the final shot of Cabiria that it takes away from the actual film it is a part of. The scene involves a major character's death, so it's hard to go into detail without spoiling it for you, but I can say that recognizing the blatant tribute may cause you to feel less for that character than you should otherwise during that scene. After all, it is difficult to care about a character that comes off as simply a tool for Lee's unnecessary acknowledgment, or re-creation, of a part of a favorite film.
Maybe I just shouldn't read a film's press notes prior to watching it (I don't usually), as I might not have caught the homage without noting Lee's mention of Cabiria in his director's statement. And perhaps I wouldn't have been thinking about Lee's other influences, from The Wizard of Oz to Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss, and unfairly comparing The Air I Breathe to them. But it doesn't matter, because The Air I Breathe would still feel completely derivative without knowledge of the exact works that inspired Lee. To me, despite what I learned from the press notes, the film was mostly reminiscent of Inarritu's Amores Perros, and not only because of where it was filmed, how it interconnects multiple stories or the fact that it features a bank robbery, a female celebrity confined to an apartment and an obligatory car accident of some kind.
The Air I Breathe takes place in one of those unnamed American cities of cinema (it was shot in Mexico City), in which there are generic gangsters with names like Fingers, who manage pop stars whose contracts they acquire as payment for debts owed (according to Lee, the film was originally to take place in Korea, where the music industry is allegedly controlled by gangsters). It is a city that exists solely for the film employing it as a setting, as a place for allegorical characters to move about and interact with each other. In The Air I Breathe, those characters have names like Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow and Love. But their names are actually more designated as titles to their respective stories, because none of the characters actually go by these names. In fact, most of them aren't addressed by any name at all. They are only recognized as having such names because of how the actors playing them are credited at the end of the film.
Forest Whitaker plays "Happiness," the protagonist of the film's first story, and it's the sort of sad sack role he could be tolerated in prior to receiving his Oscar (The Air I Breathe was shot a whole year before the 2007 awards season). In fact, it's very similar to his insurance investigator character from A Little Trip to Heaven. Here, he's a kind of stockbroker or accountant introduced as being so uptight and organized that he marks his canned food's expiration dates in his planner. Then one day he overhears a tip about a sure-thing horse and he decides to take a risk. Unfortunately, the sure thing is not so sure and the guy ends up indebted to the gangster, Fingers (Andy Garcia).
Also appearing in Happiness' story is "Pleasure" (Brendan Fraser), an enforcer for Fingers with a gift for seeing the future, who gets his own story in the second part of the film. In this story, he's assigned to babysit Fingers' obnoxious nephew Tony (Emile Hirsch), a task that recalls one of the storylines from Pulp Fiction, except that wife-sitting Mia Wallace seemed a mostly pleasurable piece of cake when compared to entertaining a pompous teenager who projects himself as an ignorant, wannabe "gangsta." Pleasure's story kind of flows into the film's third part, as the character figures prominently in the tale of "Sorrow" (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Actually, the rest of the film is barely sectioned into separate segments, as Sorrow is also a major character in the story of "Love" (Kevin Bacon).
Confusing matters with the film's whole name game is how Sorrow goes by the name Trista for her pop music career. For those familiar with Amores Perros, Sorrow/Trista's story almost completely recalls that film's segment titled "Daniel and Valeria," right from the talk show sequence beginning to the career-changing ending. The only difference is that instead of being confined to an apartment due to an injury, Sorrow/Trista is hiding from Fingers. Finally there's the story of Love, a doctor in love with his best friend's wife (Julie Delpy), who will die from a snakebite unless he can find her a blood donor. Hint: the only person in the city known to have the same rare blood type is one of the other characters in the film.
None of the four morality plays in The Air I Breathe are necessarily original in plot, nor is the film itself particularly innovative in its structure. Yet some of the accessibility of the film comes with its familiarity, even if that familiarity only gives the illusion that this is an entertaining movie. For a while, I enjoyed recalling those bits of Amores Perros because I like Inarritu's film. And for a second, I could appreciate the tribute to Nights of Cabiria, because I like Fellini's film. But in the end, it's those films that give me the feeling of enjoyment, and when I think back to The Air I Breathe on its own, it just seems flat and useless without those better, inspiring movies to support it.
Another thing I learned from reading the press notes for The Air I Breathe is that Jieho Lee has an MBA from Harvard Business School, which supposedly his parents made him get so that he'd have a fallback in case his filmmaking career didn't pan out. This biographical information makes me feel less guilty about bashing Lee's film, as I know that if The Air I Breathe is deemed a failure, he probably won't go hungry as a result. Seriously, though, I have to admit that it's more the screenplay for The Air I Breathe, which Lee co-wrote with Bob DeRosa, that is the film's downfall and Lee should have no problem getting directorial work in the future. Some of that work could even be decent, if he's fine with working from someone else's script. And, from the sampling going on in The Air I Breathe, I think he is.