Who doesn’t love a good comeback story? Mickey Rourke, his career and appearance utterly destroyed by a disastrous combination of substance abuse, botched plastic surgery, and an ill-advised foray into combat sports, emerges by utilizing the scars of those very demons to craft one of the great performances of the modern age in The Wrestler. After that, he figured he was pretty much done and decided to sleepwalk through a bizarre little indie called Passion Play. Based on the script, I’m not sure I blame him.
Tagline: Love is stronger than death
More Accurate Tagline: Thank goodness, helpful Indians!
Guilty Party: Writer/Director Mitch Glazer. He has said this is exactly the movie he wanted to make. Bad news, Mitch. You wanted to make a stinker.
Synopsis: Nate Poole (Mickey Rourke in the Mickey Rourkiest role of his career) is a sadsack ex-junkie widower who plays jazz trumpet at a low-rent burlesque club. One evening, after a set at the Dream Lounge, he gets jumped by a goon (former UFC light heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell) and driven out into the desert to be executed. Right before the goon pulls the trigger, some helpful Indians, armed with bolt-action rifles and dressed in all-white versions of what a clueless guy might think of as “Indian costumes” shoot the goon and jog away.
In the most subtle allusion of the film, Nate wanders the desert, eventually happening upon a carnival. The star attraction here is Lily Luster (Megan Fox) a woman with a pair of wings coming from her shoulders. Is she an angel? A freak? Who cares, right? The fact that her wings look exactly like those of the hawk that Nate was staring at right before the Indians shot the goon is in no way foreshadowing. Anyway, she’s an angel woman who can float a little when the wind is just right. Nate is interested in her ostensibly because she has wings and not because she looks like Megan Fox. Honest. Lily, for her part, is intensely self-loathing, and in a scene that overtaxes Fox’s meager acting reserves, yanks feathers from her wings and sobs.
Nate and Lily flee the freakshow, and Nate instantly reveals himself as just as bad as everyone else. He calls up burlesque dancer Harriet (Kelly Lynch) and tells her to set up a meeting with gangster Happy Shannon (Bill Murray). Nate fucked Happy’s wife (hence the execution in the beginning), and now wants to go into business with him by putting Lily on exhibit.
Nate and Happy come to a deal. Nate, meanwhile, seduces Lily and in the afterglow, decides to tell her all about his dead wife. See, she did heroin because he did, and now she’s dead. Lily cries, presumably because if you just finished having sex with someone and they start talking about an ex, it’s pretty clear not a single fuck was given apart from the literal one.
Happy shows up the next morning, reveals that Nate was selling Lily out. She makes Happy promise not to kill Nate, which Happy agrees to, as long as Lily comes with him. Harriet, because she lives a thankless life, nurses Nate back to health so he can go stalk Lily some more. Things don’t go well, and Nate is reduced to selling his trumpet for smack. He refuses to sell the mouthpiece, which is odd, because a trumpet without a mouthpiece is pretty much just a funny-shaped bludgeon.
At the end of his rope, Nate suddenly gets the perfect piece of information from a character who was only vaguely mentioned once (and the way he was mentioned made him sound made-up). This information is that there’s a club, owned by Happy, where he shows off a woman with real wings. Nate, knowing when the plot hammer is hitting him over the head, rushes off to save Lily.
He finds her standing topless in a glass box for the amusement of a bunch of rich people. And seriously, this is all she does. She’s not even moving. Even if you think Megan Fox is the hottest woman ever, and anything with wings is incredible, that’s gotta get boring after a minute, minute and a half tops. Anyway, Nate breaks the glass and the two of them flee to the roof where Happy and his goons corner them. It looks so much like the rooftop set from The Room, I expected Tommy Wiseau to come charging out with a water bottle complaining about how he never hit her. Nate flings himself off the roof in order to force Lily to fly and she does, grabbing him and whisking him up into the sky. There’s more, but I’m saving it for the Transcendent Moment.
Life-Changing Subtext: Make sure to abduct any carny folk you happen across because one might be an angel.
Defining Quote: Nate: “Since when does normal win a goddamn prize?” Fun fact: weird doesn’t automatically get one either.
Standout Performance: You would think this should go to Mickey Rourke, since Passion Play is right during his Wrestler-renaissance. Rourke drifts through the film, never committing to any line, moment, or even facial expression. I’m giving this to Rhys Ifans, who plays the lead carny with the proper scenery-chewing gusto that the film script implicitly demands. What lead carny, you ask, since there is no such animal mentioned in the synopsis? And there’s another problem. This film prominently features an evil lead carny played by Rhys Ifans whose part is inconsequential enough to lift right out.
What’s Wrong: Megan Fox arrived at her stardom in the precise way that Rourke left his: through extensive plastic surgery. She has been sculpted into the biological equivalent of a real doll, and never really bothered to learn about this whole “acting” thing (although in her defense, she hasn’t had to and acting is hard). Beyond that, because of her appearance as a meticulously designed vector for the male gaze, when Rourke’s character wants to save her, it never plays as anything other than a creepy drifter trying to take advantage of a sheltered young woman. In many scenes, the bizarre appearance of the two leads implies a much stranger film about a pair of living wax statues, one of which was left all day in a hot car, trying to make a go of it in this strange noir world. Glazer would have been much better served casting someone who, while still attractive, has a more quirky, less terrifying sex clone element to her beauty. Also, someone who can act at least a little.
Flash of Competence: The movie has its share of pretty shots.
Best Scenes: The central curse of Passion Play is that it never commits to its own ridiculousness. It treats even its strangest elements with more of an indifferent shrug as though the movie itself is embarrassed of its own earnestness. Except for one glorious scene in which the carnies, having caught Nate sleazing around Lily’s Airstream, shake him down under the big top. While Rhys Ifans howls in rage, Rourke is encircled with the various weirdos until the snake lady, the fucking snake lady, comes after him with a rattler. It looks like curtains for Nate until Lily plows into the tent behind the wheel of a battered pickup truck. It’s a lively spot in an otherwise deadly dull movie.
As inert as the vast majority of the film is, it is also the least subtle thing this side of an indecent exposure charge. Every frame is filled with the kind of ham-handed allusions that bad writers use to appear deep. My favorite occurs when Nate asks for a bite of the apple Lily is chowing down on. Glazer might as well have popped up from the corner of the frame and screamed, “THUS SIN ENTERED THE WORLD!”
At one point, Lily sneaks off to a plastic surgeon to get her wings chopped off. Nate arrives just in time, and the resulting scene is… well, if the lack of subtlety in most scenes is a hammer, this scene is Mjolnir. Lily wants to be like “the other girls,” (a line that’s even more disingenuous coming from Fox’s balloon-like lips) while Nate loudly rants against normality (spitting out the Defining Quote in the process). My favorite moment is when the plastic surgeon bitterly refers to Lily as a freak. It’s not even treated as unusual when he does it, either. Great bedside manner there, pal.
Transcendent Moment: Many Yakmala films reveal the extent of the contempt for their audience in the final frame, and Passion Play is no exception. As Lily flies Nate up into the sky, they pass over the place where Nate was to be executed. Only Nate’s body lies down there, dead. See, Lily was an angel this whole time, but only now can she haul Nate up to heaven. I have to ask: if it’s that much work to get this asshole to redeem himself, does he really deserve it? Oh, who cares, it was all a dream.
Passion Play is a passion project gone horribly awry. Had Glazer been delightfully foreign and a Hollywood outsider, the film might be a modern anti-classic. As it stands, it will probably be mercifully forgotten.