Director Mitch Glazer must have had something big in mind while creating Passion Play, one of the strangest mainstream films in quite some time. With Mickey Rourke as a jazz musician turned savior to Megan Fox's winged circus performer, Passion Play is a film so cluttered with haphazard theology that I found it difficult to grasp the point of it all. Pieces of the film exude a dramatic spark, but Passion Play feels like it's missing great chunks of exposition. Without a lantern to guide me through the madness, I left Passion Play confused and unsatisfied.
The film wastes no time administering a heavy dose of the surreal. Jazz musician Nate Poole (Rourke) is on the wrong side of a gun when he is saved by a pack of roaming ninjas. Poole then stumbles out of the desert into the lights of a traveling circus, where he sees Lily Luster (Fox), a woman with wings on her back. Poole decides to save Lily from the harsh life of a carny, and the pair flees from the big top and into the night. Glazer provides no motivation for Poole's actions here other than that Lily is both pitiful and pretty. There's also an alarming lack of surprise when people see Lily's huge appendages. Perhaps Glazer meant to portray a hyper-accepting society, but there's hardly an eye batted over the girl's condition.
When her circus family returns to reclaim Lily with weapons drawn, Poole realizes she is a liability and decides to pimp her out to business shark Happy Shannon (Bill Murray, phoning it in). When Shannon strong-arms Lily into becoming his concubine, Poole has an expected change of heart, as he is unable to get the beautiful woman out of his mind. Unfortunately for Poole, things aren't as easy as reneging on his deal with Shannon, who has the hired help to keep Poole far away from his new treasure.
The film's title evokes the dramatic retelling of Jesus Christ's suffering that is performed during Lent by some Christian denominations. With that in mind, it would seen Glazer intended Poole to be a Christ-like figure for Lily, gladly suffering to save his innocent flock. That notion is a bit indulgent, however, as Passion Play never sets up anything remotely that deep. Lily is a beautiful oddity, and Glazer has Rourke flat out beg her not to surgically remove her wings. Whatever deep themes Glazer was going for in his directorial debut were missed. Lily is Poole's obsession and nothing more.
Shannon is but a temporary roadblock to Poole and Lily's reunion, and Murray looks about as excited to be in the film as I was watching it. If the point was to laud Poole for being kind to a "freak," then the filmmakers should have realized they needed an actress less striking than Fox. Speaking of the Transformers evictee, Fox is all smiles and soft speech, and anyone who says she is the film's biggest problem is sorely mistaken.
The film's ending undercuts the proceedings but does revisit the themes of redemption and sacrifice. I might have been willing to accept that Passion Play had some deeper meaning if I felt Glazer had more than a vague idea of what that meaning was. Viewed beginning to end, the film feels like it is missing huge sections of its plot. The action frequently lurches forward in time and setting, leaving the audience to wonder about character motivation and narrative structure. Passion Play is a mess. I hesitate to call it an ambitious mess, but it's at least a perplexing mess. Like Lily, Passion Play is an oddity hard to look away from but ultimately sad and confused.
Image Entertainment presents Passion Play on DVD with an inconsistent 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. A lot of things are wrong with the movie, but the cinematography isn't one of them. Unfortunately, detail varies throughout the film; some scenes are textured and crisp while others are soft and downright blurry. Colors are generally strong, but blacks tend to crush in darker scenes, robbing the image of detail. I also noticed quite a bit of compression noise and pixilation, especially during the opening desert scenes. On the plus side, the image lacks edge enhancement and other digital manipulation.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is competent but hardly impressive. Most of the action comes from the center speaker, and dialogue is clear and balanced. The track throws a little weight behind the film's jazzy score, but the LFE is weak, and effects rarely travel toward the back of the sound field. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also available.
Those looking for some explanation of what went wrong with the film will be disappointed, as the film's theatrical trailer is the only extra.
As delivered, Passion Play is a nearly indecipherable mess. Plagued by poor editing and even weaker storytelling, Passion Play winds up a goopy casserole of undeveloped ideas and themes. Rourke and Fox do their best with the material, but Director Mitch Glazer is never able to articulate a meaningful homily for the film. Image's DVD features average picture and sound and no added content. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.