By Merle Bertrand | March 5, 2001

TEXAS FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! Struggling writer John Duggan (screenwriter John Rafter Lee) and struggling actor John Hammond (John Billingsley) are best friends. That’s how the latter can get away with referring to the former’s screenwriting opus, an intensely personal script about the IRA, as “that potato movie.” It’s also how the latter knows he can trust the former to take his place at one of his part time jobs, driving the feisty retired theater actress Emma (June Claman) around town and helping her on a series of errands.
Mere tolerance devolves into irritation and disdain, then mutates again into a very grudging respect, admiration and finally even affection as Duggan and Emma get to know each other better. She might be a cantankerous British snob, but, like the English teacher everyone in high school loves to hate, she has her winning moments as well. She’s also suffering from emphysema, breathing with the help of an oxygen mask at home, although she’s far too proud to show her suffering in public. Even so, she’s determined to land one final role before her final curtain call; a tour de force performance in J. Duggan’s outrageous, possibly mob-funded satirical play “Hitler’s Head.”
Two warning flags pop up when considering director Eric Neal Young’s film: the lead character is a screenwriter and the obvious surface similarities to “Driving Miss Daisy.” Ignore them both. The tired screenwriting angle here, while prominent, isn’t too overbearing. For that matter, the same goes with the cliche of J. Hammond being an actor. These occupations somehow just seem to fit their characters. As for the Miss Daisy parallels, this script is based on actual events, writer Lee sharing similar experiences with a woman much like Emma, making such Miss Daisy similarities much easier to swallow.
Besides, this film is way too much fun in general and has too much other stuff going on to worry about these things. Watching Emma worm her way into J. Duggan’s play, for instance, is a hoot, while the subplot involving the Feds staking out J. Hammond’s bizarre talent agent as a suspected drug smuggler, ensnaring J. Duggan and Emma in the process, is a deliciously silly diversion. Finally, there’s the relationships in which the two Johns find themselves embroiled; romances heading in directions as opposite as their respective principles.
“Breathing Hard” is a well-crafted and enjoyable film; a sweet movie with just a little bit of a mean streak…which, in a way, perfectly describes its gracefully aging heroine.

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