In tyro helmer Jieho Lee's morosely pretentious multistrander, "The Air I Breathe," Forest Whitaker, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Kevin Bacon portray, respectively, Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow and Love -- the four pillars of life, according to an ancient Chinese proverb.

In tyro helmer Jieho Lee’s morosely pretentious multistrander, “The Air I Breathe,” Forest Whitaker, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Kevin Bacon portray, respectively, Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow and Love — the four pillars of life, according to an ancient Chinese proverb. But given the pic’s nihilism, overall air of desperation and sped-up, fragmented HD effects, viewers would be hard-pressed to tell these emotions apart without the chapter headings. Stellar thesps gamely strive to elevate the one-note material, but gravity ultimately defeats them in this relentless downer. Name cast insures distribution, but it is unclear where this darkhorse will run.

Lee and co-scripter Bob DeRosa’s loosely interwoven plots include some characters that mesh intimately while others touch tangentially, most of them clustered around Fingers (Andy Garcia), a menacing, soft-spoken moneylender legendary for exacting his pound of flesh in digits.

The curtain-raiser stars a bespectacled Whitaker, feeling suffocated by the cubicled soullessness of his stockbroker’s job. Overhearing colleagues discussing a surefire winner at the track, he follows them to a shadowy establishment owned by Fingers, in which Whitaker loses far more money than he has. To recoup, he undertakes a radically desperate act, ending with nothing more to lose and a fleeting moment of perfect liberation.

Whitaker proves convincing as the fearful functionary trapped in his own squirrel cage, and his short-lived epiphany (later reprised as it intersects with other characters’ destinies) is truly a thing of beauty. For most of his 25 minutes of screentime, though, he simply sweats and looks frantic — not much of a stretch after incarnating the mercurial Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.”

Pleasure, as paradoxically essayed by a brooding Brendan Fraser, pops up next. He can see the future in disconnected flashes, but cannot change it. Only after his preternatural vision deserts him can he fall in love (though not change expression), unfortunately with a singer (Geller) whose contract Fingers has bought in a bid to go legit.

In this segment, Fingers’ young, cocky, and splendidly despicable nephew Tony (Emile Hirsch), whom Pleasure is forced to babysit, brings a much-needed note of humor to the angst-ridden proceedings. The action in this episode at times takes on the slapstick grace of an Asian noir actioner, indicating for all-too-brief moments a more vibrant, tonally flexible film. Afterward, however, all tonal variation in the pic dies an increasingly melodramatic death.

Geller’s Sorrow, like all the other characters’ designated emotions, smacks of desperation as she struggles to hold onto Pleasure while evading Fingers’ grasp. But her desperateness pales before the insane anxiety of Love (Kevin Bacon) as he searches for a cure for the great (but unrequited) love of his life (Julie Delpy), his best friend’s wife, who has been bitten by a snake.

Though Whitaker & Co. are able to hold the script’s allegorical absurdities at bay for sustained stretches, the pileup of dour “Pilgrim’s Progress”-like moral vignettes, devoid of relevance or originality and filmed in a surprisingly characterless Mexico City posing as metropolitan America, strains both credulity and patience. With Happiness, Love and Pleasure like this, who needs depression?

Tech credits achieve an exemplary bleakness.

The Air I Breathe

Production

A NALA Films/Paul Schiff production. Produced by Emilio Diez Barroso, Darlene Caamano Loquet, Paul Schiff. Executive producers, Tai Duncan, Christopher Pratt. Directed by Jieho Lee. Screenplay by Lee, Bob DeRosa.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Walt Lloyd; editor, Robert Hoffman; music, Marcello Zarvos; production designer, Bernardo Trujillo; costume designer, Michele Michel; sound (Dolby Digital), Alec St. John, Robert Getty; casting, Mary Vernieu. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Encounters), April 30, 2007. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Happiness - Forest Whitaker Pleasure - Brendan Fraser Sorrow - Sarah Michelle Gellar Love - Kevin Bacon Fingers - Andy Garcia Gina - Julie Delpy Tony - Emile Hirsch

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