Film Review: Passion Play

Screenwriter Mitch Glazer’s directing debut is a romantic fable about love, redemption and exquisitely art-directed squalor whose evident sincerity is overwhelmed by its utter ridiculousness.

Once upon a time, jazz trumpeter Nate Poole (Mickey Rourke) was a handsome, up-and-comer with a recording contract, a beautiful wife and a fatal addiction to dope. Now he’s a weathered, alcoholic has-been blowing tunes at the low-rent New Mexico strip club where his best pal, aging burlesque dancer Harriet (Kelly Lynch), fan-dances for losers who think they’re really going to find their dreams at a dive called The Dream Club. And at the end of one particularly bad night, he’s kidnapped from the parking lot and beaten up by a muscle-bound thug (Mixed Martial Arts icon Chuck Liddell), who then drives him deep into the desert. Nate has a pretty good idea how the ride will end, given that he’s been screwing around with a lady who turned out to be the wife of dapper-but-vicious crime lord Happy Shannon (Bill Murray).

Except that it doesn’t: As Nate prepares to die, a bunch of white-clad Indians kill the thug, leaving him alive but stranded in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the middle of nowhere is within walking distance of a garishly seedy carnival, where Nate becomes infatuated with a beautiful young woman named Lily (Megan Fox), the winged star of a surprisingly effective sideshow illusion whose secret is that it isn’t an illusion. And fortunately, she’s also infatuated with him, because even though she’s a Mexican orphan plucked from a garbage dump and raised by flamboyant English carnie Sam Adamo (Rhys Ifans) in the kind of innocent isolation rarely seen outside elegantly naughty novels about cloistered nuns, Lily loves vintage jazz albums—albums as in vinyl in sleeves printed with moody Chet Baker-esque portraits of sleepy-eyed jazzmen like Nate. So they hit the road together, and kind of fall in love, which is to say that Lily falls in love with Nate and Nate kind of falls in love with her, enough to feel bad about plotting to save his own skin by selling Lily to Shannon, but not enough not to go through with it.

A series of increasingly bizarre twists of fate lead Nate and Lily—together and separately—through gala parties, rundown diners and laundromats, divinely decadent nightclubs, picturesque roadside motels and gas stations and the darkest recesses of the human soul, en route to an ending that both makes sense of the movie’s nuttiness and deals the death blow to its delusions of being a bittersweet parable about the magical power of love.
Greeted with catcalls, walkouts and scathing notices at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Passion Play is pure, unadulterated folly of the most poignant kind: the dream project so long aborning that everyone involved lost all perspective. To give credit where it’s due, the film is truly gorgeous, with its meticulously artful sets, lavish costumes, and Christopher Doyle’s richly evocative cinematography in remarkable locations, which include a movie-star-stunning Frank Lloyd Wright house whose adobe curves flow into the surrounding landscape; the Santa Fe opera house, whose back wall can be opened to reveal the extraordinary surrounding countryside, and the real-life World of Wonders carnival.

Unfortunately, all this beauty is at the service of a story that makes no sense in ways small (Why would a roadside motel owner stare at a stray feather on a flagstone as though it were some bizarre talisman when the skies are filled with wheeling raptors?) and large, which is not the same thing as being mysterious or elliptical. Rourke and Fox, for all their exquisitely styled clothes and, in her case, old-Hollywood glamour make-up, are eclipsed by Murray’s malevolent Happy Shannon. The shark beneath his bespoke suits and owlish glasses is never far from the surface and his implicit viciousness is thoroughly convincing. It’s hard not to read significance into the fact that he was a last-minute replacement (for Toby Kebbell, an English actor half his age): There’s something to be said for winging it rather than brooding the life out of a project.