REVIEW: Mickey Rourke, Winged Megan Fox Fail to Take Flight in Passion Play
To the extent it wields any notoriety at all, Passion Play will be remembered for two qualities: First, the 20-year process of screenwriter Mitch Glazer to develop and finally film this, his feature directing debut. Second, its missed opportunity in making the most of meaty, counterintuitive roles for its stars Mickey Rourke, Megan Fox and Bill Murray. On paper, this should have worked -- and worked well.
On screen, meanwhile, Passion Play flies so wide of the mark it sets for itself -- as a romantic meditation on finding and holding one's place in a vicious, violent world -- that it turns on itself, mortally wounded by Glazer's misbegotten vision of life and love in culture's squalid margins. Down-and-out jazz trumpeter Nate Poole (Rourke) knows a thing or two about this real estate: His once-flourishing career and marriage both toppled by a debilitating heroin habit, Nate has since taken up residency at a low-rent burlesque joint and made clumsy mistakes like sleeping with the wife of local ganglord Happy Shannon (Murray, bewigged and not quite loving it).
The latter proves especially costly, as one of Happy's thugs abducts Nate for a trip to the desert with designs on killing him. But thanks to a baffling miracle (the first of many Glazer deploys, his overworked deus ex machina belching a fog of narrative exhaust), Nate is spared. He's also stranded. Finally, traversing the cold, darkening landscape, he encounters -- what else? -- a traveling carnival run by sideshow commandant Sam (Rhys Ifans). The phone's inside, he tells Nate; before he can dial for help, however, he comes across Lily (Fox), a raven-haired beauty behind streaked glass who spreads her, um, wings for voyeurs, perverts and other fellows of Nate's déclassé ilk.
No, really. Lily has honest-to-goodness wings. Nate takes a natural interest, and before long they're escaping Sam's oppressive grasp and bonding over Lily's inability to fly. Nate's more concerned with her ability to put money in his pocket and possibly save his life, returning to town to strike a deal with Happy that quickly deteriorates mere hours after the tasteful, cathartic, inevitable, jazz-scored birdwoman/ex-junkie sex scene that draws Nate and Lily ever closer even as they're pursued and attacked by ugliness from all sides. Will they make it? After all, Glazer intimates, they were never better than when they had each other -- flaws, weaknesses, self-doubts and all. Messy as love can be, no foe is a match for it.
Except in filmmaking, that is, where not even love can overcome muddled storylines like those strangling Passion Play. It's not that Glazer's convictions are unsound, or that his high-profile cast are working by the numbers, either. Fox and Rourke embody Lily and Nate's lost souls with vulnerability that's at once strikingly sincere and strange, particularly for two actors renowned for their impunity both on and off screen. Murray stalks through his scenes with droll, bloodthirsty relish. And their eventual triangulation does supply what little emotional momentum Passion Play can muster: Forced to sacrifice Lily to the lovestruck gangster at knifepoint, Nate stalls out convincingly in the denial stage of grieving. Later, sneaking into Happy's redoubt in an attempt to rescue her, Nate is rebuffed by his tormented angel. Once again eliciting Happy's vow that he won't hurt Nate as long as she remains captive, Lily forces real defiance through a string of tears: "Break it," she says of Happy's promise, his one remaining hint of humanity, "and I'm gone."
Still, this is not our world, a point Glazer drives home with lush aesthetic strokes (including cinematography by the great Christopher Doyle) constantly reminding us of the alien environment these outsiders must brave en route to salvation. Which would be fine if the script's logic weren't alien as well -- if, for instance, Kelly Lynch's bar madam served any purpose beyond answering Nate's exposition-friendly telephone calls back to town, or if feathers and laundromats and drugs and lemons and a junk drawer of other seemingly random elements weren't forced through a magic-realist prism already making life hard enough by itself for Glazer, his ensemble and his audience alike. You can forgive his haste in thrusting us right into the story, thin as it is; some filmmakers' greatest virtue is their faith in viewers to catch up. But he miscalculates in assuming there's anything about these people we'd want to catch up with in the first place.
Anyway, once it's clear Glazer has no intention of explaining such curiosities as Lily's anomalous origins or the source of Happy's sociopathy, there's nothing left to do but count the minutes until the climactic payoff you know is coming from the start -- and attempt to avoid laughing once it arrives. If nothing else, Glazer goes for it, and considering it might be a while before you again see the terminally underrated Fox in a role this substantive, her exit confers a genuine bittersweetness that rubs off on a film -- a love story about a washed-up trumpet player and woman with freaking wings -- that has few other excuses for taking itself so seriously. Hard as it may be for Passion Play's principals to accept, some ideas were just never meant to fly.