The Chinese proverb that all emotions are intertwined and so are people is depicted in The Air I Breathe using four very diverse characters from very diverse worlds known only by the emotions they represent. The story starts off with Happiness (Forest Whitaker) a lonely banker who realizes he has let life pass him by until he decides to take chances much like his mysterious client Pleasure (Brendan Fraser). What Happiness doesn't know is that Pleasure is the lead henchman to a gangster named Fingers (Andy Garcia). Happiness overhears co-workers talk about a sure bet at a horse race and decides to bet more than he has and so ends up owing Fingers. Meanwhile Fingers wins a contract to represent popular pop singer Sorrow (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and she turns suicidal when she finds out he is her new manager. Then she takes an interest in Pleasure. And in another story Love (Kevin Bacon) is frantically searching for a rare blood type to save his old girlfriend (Julie Delpy) from a snake bite. It just so happens Sorrow has the type Love is looking for. Finally Fingers' self-absorbed nephew Tony (Emile Hirsch) is flying into town and he just wants to have fun; Fingers assigns a reluctant Pleasure to the task. Sure you could say that Gellar is just playing herself as she deals with rude journalists and overzealous fans but she plays a range of emotion and pathos she hasn't tapped into since the end of her popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fraser is equally surprising. He's not played someone so stiff and unpleasant since he made a splash with indie film Gods and Monsters. Fraser also shows a strong range as Pleasure who ends up becoming surprisingly sympathetic. Bacon and Whitaker are in rather low-key roles that don't seem to push their talents and Hirsch is simply irritating in his one-note role. Garcia is famous for playing gangsters (Godfather Part III anyone?) and Fingers is just as brutal and deadly named for his preference to cut off people’s fingers. His presence is chilling every time he walks into a room. He embodies fear the emotion which seems to linger over or tamp down the emotions of the others. First-time director/co-writer Jieho Lee makes a superb debut with an A-list cast and a compelling story. Even though it has the feel of an ancient Chinese proverb The Air I Breathe is set in a Western city (in actuality it was shot in Mexico City) and is reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz: Sorrow as Dorothy blithely seeking her career; Love as the Scarecrow; Pleasure as the heartless Tin Man; and Happiness as the Cowardly Lion. Fingers' role is not only both the good and bad witches he is also the Great and Powerful Oz as well who manipulates their lives but ultimately has no power at all. Lee tosses in subtle filmic references to his movie influences but the over-the-top third act takes away from the fine subtleties he sets up early in the film.
Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) is a mischievous and sexually liberated student and aspiring painter in Mexico City when she first spies the much older prominent muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) cavorting with one of his models. Frida lives with her loving parents--Mexican mother German-Jewish father--and is intimately involved with her boyfriend. Tragedy strikes when Frida is gravely injured in a trolley crash and she never fully recovers. When her boyfriend takes off for Europe Kahlo focuses more on her paintings and boldly approaches Rivera for an honest appraisal of her work. Rivera well known for his marital infidelity and womanizing immediately recognizes Kahlo's talent and takes her under his wing as a protégée rather than a lover. An ardent Communist with a zest for socializing he introduces her to his artsy and progressive circles where Kahlo easily fits in. The pair soon become lovers and believing they have a special understanding of each other decide to marry. The union is immediately threatened when Kahlo learns that the hotheaded Lupe (Valeria Golino) one of Rivera's ex-wives occupies the apartment above theirs. After Rivera is awarded several commissions in the U.S. he and Kahlo begin their tour in New York and enjoy life as minor celebrities. Kahlo exercises her promiscuity by carrying on with one of Rivera's lovers and Rivera exercises his political intransigence with a fateful confrontation with Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) who hired the artist to paint a mural in the Rockefeller Center lobby. The dust-up causes the loss of another commission and the couple returns to Mexico where they become hosts to fugitive Communist Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife. Kahlo has an affair with the legendary figure but when it threatens his marriage they move away and Trotsky is assassinated soon after. Rivera and Kahlo divorce but remarry when Rivera returns to his partner who is now impoverished and desperately ill.
The acting here is outstanding. Salma Hayek as the wild and quietly creative Kahlo is in practically every frame and dazzles in a variety of moods and situations. Alfred Molina in the more subtle role of Rivera is every bit as marvelous managing to charm and delight as a character who is essentially dissolute yet warm and lovable. Valeria Golino is another standout in the lesser role of the fiery Lupe. Geoffrey Rush makes a credible Trotsky and Ashley Judd pleases as a jovial Mexican party girl with a taste for mischief. Antonio Banderas does a neat cameo as a heated Communist and Edward Norton plays a very decent Rockefeller not shy about saying who pays the bills. Brits Roger Rees convincing as Kahlo's loving father and Saffron Burrows as Kahlo's loving diversion add heft to their supporting roles.
Julie Taymor best known for some very showy previous works like Broadway's The Lion King her feature debut Titus and a number of critically acclaimed operas proves again with Frida that she's an incomparable visual stylist. Taymor engages the eyes with a dazzling palette of Mexican colors and iconography and episodes of magical realism and mixed media invention that convey the intoxicating world of her subjects and the dramatic signature events of their lives. But Taymor (who also delivers a seductive majestic soundtrack) never loses sight of the fact that it is her beguiling characters who matter most.
You may not have heard of George Jung before this but you quickly learn that whoever was doing coke in the '70s and '80s (and according to this movie who wasn't) was probably sniffing his stuff. This biopic tracks Jung's travails from his troubled poor boyhood to his pot-dealing days in California to his life as a millionaire cocaine trafficker for the Colombian Medellin cartel. The party has to end sometime and for Jung it does when he's repeatedly busted eventually loses his family and ultimately destroys his life.
Johnny Depp might just get an Oscar nod next year for his performance as a regular guy who turns into the foremost drug distributor in U.S. history. But in all honesty he's startlingly one-note (couldn't he change his facial expression just once? A millionaire drug dealer must have had fun sometime). Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths are terribly miscast as his parents (which one is Depp supposed to take after?) although Liotta is quite good as Jung's heartbroken but accepting father. Penélope Cruz goes overboard as Jung's hateful wife and clunks her way through her lines; her bad wigs make it even worse. Now an open plea to casting directors everywhere: Please put Paul Reubens in your next movie. Without overdoing it he's great as a femme hairdresser who becomes the first to introduce Jung to his life of crime.
After the schmaltzy beginning showing Jung's childhood the movie cruises into high gear using nifty camerawork and freeze-frames to convey his thrilling rise to trafficking stardom. Then a little over the halfway point the film loses a lot of steam and starts exuding sap. Maybe it's the subject matter maybe it's the direction but the tear-jerking last half hour doesn't support its snappy carefree start. Depp looks as intense celebrating his birthday as he does when his family leaves him; moreover Jung seems to have had no moral concern for his actions (except where it affected him). So while you do feel sorry for the guy you aren't as sorry as the film implies you should be. The movie tugs unrelentingly at the heartstrings the coup de grace a full-screen mug shot of the wretched real-life inmate Jung.