Enough with the dramas about frustrated older men seeking a second chance at life and love through a barely legal girl. Please.
As follow-up to his critically heralded young love story, Like Crazy, writer-director Drake Doremus offers the May-December romance Breathe In. It too played Sundance and won critical praise, but this critic had a hard time getting past its painfully predictable plot, which exhaustingly plays into the trope of a younger woman saving some miserable man from the mistakes in his life.
Guy Pearce stars as Keith Reynolds, an American family man and music teacher who desperately clings to hope that he might still make a career as a classical musician. His wife (Amy Ryan, in an infuriatingly unremarkable role) is his buzz kill. Supportive yet realistic, she reminds him of the hard times they faced financially while he was a struggling artist, and states the responsibilities they have to their teen daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis). But she just doesn't get him!
Enter Sophie (Felicity Jones), an English foreign exchange student who shares his passion for classical music, plays piano like a demon, and is the same age as Keith's daughter. Could she be the answer to his self-centered prayers?
The premise of dissatisfied married man wanting to recapture youth and inspiration through acquiring a much younger mistress is one I've frankly grown tired of. Lolita, Juno, Nobody Walks and The Invisible Woman (to name a few) all share this thread, and notably Jones played the part of the savior/mistress in the last one as well. It's a male fantasy that gets a lot of screen time. But not even a cast as talented as this one can make this take on the cliché feel fresh or interesting.
Remarkably, Doremus and co-writer Ben York Jones didn't pen an actual screenplay for Breathe In. Instead, they drafted an outline of its plot, then allowed the rehearsals of the performers to fill in the dialogue. This is a risky approach that found a home in mumblecore, but here it holds more heat, largely because of the chemistry between Pearce and Jones. Though playing an aggravating cad, Pearce manifests a fully formed character out of Keith's outline. His motives--as selfish and despicable as they are--are clear, and his slow-burning attraction for young, fiery Sophie is vibrant though subtly played. But it was difficult to respect Doremus's restraint in the presentation of their romance when so much young female flesh is casually and endlessly on display between Lauren and Sophie's revealing outfits.
To that end, Jones does a fine job of making herself a beautiful object of lust and fixation, but Sophie still feels like a fiction. She's far more the wish of bored men than a relatable girl. She's worldly yet innocent. She's sophisticated yet not jaded. She's barely a woman and yet the perfect one, right?
Sophie is the manic pixie dream girl, minus the quirks; her only importance--and that of the other female leads for that matter--is how she impacts him. All of Breathe In ultimately orbits around Keith's desires, who he does want and doesn't. Each of the three women in his life, his wife, his daughter, his could-be mistress, all love and want him. So the film functions solely to see who he'll choose. But who cares?
The performances of the film are by far its best attribute, though the jump cut style crudely emphasizes their impromptu nature. Even with grounded characterizations and tender performances the central plot was so transparent and artlessly rendered that I couldn't bother to engage with it. I didn't care what happened to this dreadful couple. And with the other leads being subjugated to their love story, I was left little to grab onto. Ultimately, Breathe In offers a unoriginal narrative that lacks a unexpected or fascinating angle making it feel like the echo of better movies that have come before it.