The concept of the film is based on an ancient Chinese proverb that breaks life down into four emotional cornerstones – Happiness (Whitaker), Pleasure (Fraser), Sorrow (Gellar), and Love (Bacon). The proverb speaks of these emotions, not as isolated fragments of feelings, but as elements that make up the whole of the human existence. Each of the four protagonists is based on one of the four emotions; and like the proverb their paths are inextricably linked to each other, akin to the Fingers (Garcia) of a hand.
None of the four main characters' actual names are mentioned in the whole film, although Gellar's character's stage name, "Trista", is mentioned several times.
Each of the elements of life is portrayed using four different people in the urban streets of Los Angeles, with the gangster Fingers (Garcia) playing the character that intertwines all four individuals.Happiness
Forest Whitaker plays a meek bank employee who loves butterflies. He accidentally overhears acquaintances discuss a fixed horse race, and decides to bet $50,000, borrowing from a bookie, Fingers. Unfortunately he loses the bet.
Fingers derives his name from his habit of cutting off the fingers of those who don’t pay back their debts. Fingers threatens Happiness, and Pleasure, Finger's enforcer, visits him to collect, but pities Happiness, so gives him a revolver and leaves. In desperation, Happiness robs the bank. While fleeing, he is slightly hit by a moving vehicle, then escapes to the top of a building. Surrounded, the police order him to drop his gun. He does not comply, throwing the money bag off the roof, and is killed by the police. When he hits the ground his coat is spread out making him look like a butterfly.Pleasure
Brendan Fraser plays a man with a sad past and an ability to see the future of the people he meets, an ability that deprives him of the pleasure of enjoying the surprises in life. When he was young, he was forced to defend his younger brother in a street fight against two teenagers. Pleasure won the fight but found his brother lying dead. Pleasure often has flashbacks of this scene throughout the film. Later in life, Pleasure joins Fingers' gang and becomes one of his favorites due mostly to his ability. He, however, cannot see the future of Trista (Gellar).
He is assigned to look after Fingers' visiting nephew, Tony. He has a vision of Tony climbing a fence and falling back. To avoid trouble, he leaves Tony in a club while working (collecting protection money). Unfortunately, one of the girls that Tony is with, high on drugs, staggers into the next room. When Tony follows her, they struggle over a gun, and an older mobster gets shot. Pleasure rescues Tony, and they run from the henchmen, ending at the fence of the earlier vision. Tony gets away, and it is Pleasure who is caught by the henchmen, severely beaten, and then treated by Love (Bacon) in a hospital.Sorrow
Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a somewhat morose up-and-coming pop singer/dancer with the stage name "Trista". In flashback, it's revealed that as a young child, she saw her father killed when he was accidentally hit by a moving car, immediately after promising to 'be there for her', and the loss affects her deeply. Trista's manager is deeply indebted to Fingers, and embezzles Trista's money to pay Fingers, but that is not enough, so he assigns Trista's contract to Fingers. Trista, incensed, escapes from Fingers and meets Pleasure. Fingers, naturally, has already ordered his team to find her. Pleasure, sympathetic to her, helps Trista by letting her stay with him, knowing that his house is the only place Fingers wouldn't search for her. They become lovers, but soon Fingers finds out about her location, and kills Pleasure, causing Trista even more sorrow. Her blood type is Kp(a-b-), which she reveals when a TV interviewer asks her what is special about her. This becomes hopeful information when Love hears it on the television, as he is searching for that blood type, the same as Gina's, when he is trying to save her life.Love
Kevin Bacon plays a doctor who is in love with his longtime friend Gina (Julie Delpy). He never confessed his love and, so, she married his best friend. Gina gets bitten by a poisonous snake and needs a rare type of blood. Desperate, Love races to the location where Trista is filming the interview; however, Trista's assistant is in the process of trying to help Trista run away. Love runs to Trista. Her bodyguards, thinking he is a crazed fan, grab him while Trista is accidentally knocked down, hits her head and ends up in the hospital. When she awakens, Fingers informs her that she will have to abort the baby that she has just become aware that she is carrying. In her sorrow that the baby, the one thing she has left of the man she loved (Pleasure) will be lost, she sneaks out of her room and goes to the roof to jump off and commit suicide. Love, by circumstance, sees her and races up in time to see her step off the ledge. He grabs the bed sheet that she had wrapped around her like a cape and catches her. He tells her she will have to come up and grab his hand for him to be able to pull her up. After she does this, the movie flashes to Gina, saved, awakening from her coma. Love loans Trista his car as a gift for saving Gina and she leaves the hospital.Ending
Fingers looks for Trista at the hospital, but his efforts to find her are in vain, as she has already left. As Trista escapes in Love's car, she slightly hits Happiness as he runs in front of her car in his dash from the bank (in the scene that we saw from his point of view earlier); as she sits at the intersection, as she's coming to grips with all that has happened, the money bag Happiness threw from the top of the building lands on her car's rooftop. The film closes with Trista at an airport traveling away, the money bag providing her with all the financial support she needs to escape from Fingers and start a new life for herself and her baby abroad.Sarah Michelle Gellar as Sorrow/'Trista'
Julie Delpy as Gina
Brendan Fraser as Pleasure
Andy Garcia as Fingers
Kevin Bacon as Love
Clark Gregg as Henry
Emile Hirsch as Tony
Forest Whitaker as Happiness
Will Maier as Mr. Park
Evan Parke as Danny
Cecilia Suárez as Alison
John Cho as Bart
Kelly Hu as Jiyoung
Jason Dolley as Young Pleasure
Todd Stashwick as Frank
Kari Wührer as Correspondent
Jon Bernthal as Interviewer
Mike Carlucci as Horse Race Announcer
Sasha Pieterse as Young Sorrow
Taylor Nichols as Sorrow's Father
Reviews for the film were overwhelmingly negative. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gave it an approval rating of 12% based on 23 reviews, with an average rating of 3.8/10. The site's consensus reads "The Air I Breathe is a jumbled indie production that accomplishes little save for the squandering of a talented cast". On Metacritic, the film has a score of 37 out of 100, based on 9 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews". Most critics agreed that while the cast gave good performances, the film itself is overly pretentious to the point of comedy.
Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum gave the film a "D-" and called it an "unintentional parody". Similarly, the New York Post's Kyle Smith noted that the film gets "increasingly ridiculous" and nicknamed the director "Pretension" in keeping with the names the four main characters are given in the credits. Claudia Puig of USA Today conceded that each of the film's segments "has its moments" but that on the whole it lacked "an overarching vision". In the New York Daily News however, Jack Mathews thought the film had a "convoluted screenplay" that went "0-4" on its segments, despite the "fine" performances from the cast. Carina Chocano agreed that the cast was of a "high-caliber" and "disport[ed] themselves admirably" in the Los Angeles Times, with special mention to Andy Garcia and Forest Whitaker, but ultimately felt that "the whole thing looks like a pirated knockoff" with "all the aesthetic innovation of a disposable razor commercial", showcasing "meaningless allegory, violence and pretension" that gets "more ludicrous by the minute" and is "good for an occasional laugh". Writing for Variety, Ronnie Scheib also agreed that the cast was "stellar" but deemed the film to be "morosely pretentious" and questioned who it was for as it "strains both credulity and patience". Meanwhile, Rex Reed of the New York Observer found nothing to like in the film, calling it "a load of amateurish bilge" and singling out Sarah Michelle Gellar for her "wooden" performance.
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on May 27, 2008 in the United States and includes a commentary, featurette, trailer and deleted scenes. The film was released on DVD in the UK on September 15, 2008.