A vanity project from successful Hollywood screenwriter and first-time director Mitch Glazer (Scrooged), Passion Play should really be much funnier than it is. Oh, it's not a comedy, by the way. Not at all. Unfortunately, the film is deadly, tortuously serious and sincere. So absurdly sincere is it regarding its stale tale of a self-destructive jazz musician (Mickey Rourke) who gets into trouble with some bad men that the film should be a laugh-out-loud cult classic of inept filmmaking. Yet it just sits there, completely dead, and unable even to be unintentionally funny. Even with a running time filled with gun-toting Native American gangs who act as a deus ex machina, Bill Murray as a ruthless gangster named Happy Shannon, and Megan Fox as a winged circus "freak" who lacks the confidence to fly, Passion Play still cannot even elicit a smile. Oh, and yes, she does actually have feathered wings, and if there is a strong breeze she can actually fly. Sincerely.
The story, such as it is, has Rourke's down-on-his-luck trumpet player, Nate Poole, surviving a mob hit in the desert with the help of said Native Americans and stumbling upon a traveling circus run by the slimy Rhys Ifans, whose most precious object is Lily (Megan Fox), she of the feathered-friend variety. Poole and Lily run off together, with Poole intent on settling his debt with gangster Happy Shannon (Bill Murray, having a good ol' time underplaying) by offering him the girl as an attraction to his high-art friends. Of course, things don't go as planned, and Poole ends up a loser as all down-on-their-luck trumpet players do in noir stories. The film starts out so awful you think there's no way for it to get any worse. And then it does. And then it just keeps on getting worse, leading to an ending that just could not be better designed to elicit a collective groan from the audience. I challenge anyone to watch the last few minutes of this film without groaning. It's like one swift kick to the audience's collective balls.
The cast does what it can while Glazer tries to learn how to direct. It's been a long while since a major film has been released that is as incompetently directed as this one. This is a common problem for screenwriters turned directors, but normally they are surrounded by top technicians in the camera and editing departments, so things go more smoothly. With Wong Kar-Wai's legendary cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, doing the lighting, you would think that at least some of this would be covered. However, Glazer seems to have little idea of where to place the camera, so scenes are covered haphazardly with framings that are one step away from having a thumb in front of the lens. The rest appears to have been scotch-taped together in the editing room to make sense of the mess.
However, screenwriters-turned-directors usually bring with them a sterling example of the very thing they are known for: the screenplay. Glazer would've made a better film if he'd left his script at home. The material is so mundane on the one hand (the standard noir tale of a doomed jazz musician) while pretentiously straining for art by including elements of magic realism. The only thing that could've saved this was a sense of humor, something Glazer is actually known for as well. Yet there really is none, except for some random gag involving the brand of whiskey in Kelly Lynch's home called "Gordon Shumway." What the name of the alien from ALF has to do with this film is beyond me. As a whole, this crazy story is directed as a straight drama, and yet the material is screaming out for someone to give it some kind of irony. I provided my own irony by making fun of it while I watched its 94 minutes tick slowly away. Then the ending came, and it turns out that I was the one who was being mocked.
Thanks to the fine work of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Passion Play looks quite good visually, and the transfer to DVD is very fine. There are some issues with the sound mix at times, but overall nothing too annoying. Occasionally the music and effects tracks drown out the dialogue, but since the dialogue is often quite awful this may be a good thing.
There are no extras except the "theatrical" trailer. The idea that this movie played anywhere theatrically is also amusing. In the end, I have to say I would've loved to have a pair of commentary tracks. One with Glazer explaining his insane choices and the other with Mickey Rourke telling us why this film is so awful.
Reviewed By: Brian Holcomb