A passion project can be a creation that lifts you or crushes you. As a moviegoing public, we thrive on those stories that hit just right – that find the core of human experience or understanding and inspire us to think: "Yes, this is it!" Though we yearn for those moments, they aren't always so easy to achieve. Just think of the work of men like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch – some stories make that connection while others fail. There isn't always a direct path between the director's vision and the viewer's visceral reaction, and one man's passion play can be another man's misfire.
Thus is the strength and weakness of 'Scrooged' scribe Mitch Glazer's directorial debut, 'Passion Play' – a film that adeptly conveys his passion for the material (twenty years in the making), yet fails to hit the audience in that same engaging way.
A modern fairy tale of two unlikely lovers, Mickey Rourke stars as Nate, a down-on-his-luck trumpet player who is taken down by a thug, and driven to the desert to face his execution. That is, until he sees a hawk in the sky and is saved by some white-clad Native Americans running through the darkness like angelic warriors. Saved, Nate stumbles through the desert and happens upon a traveling freak show. Looking for a phone, he makes his way into a dark, curtained room. Only his face and his white hat (cue symbolism) are visible in the shadows. A woman behind a pane of glass pulls a cord, turning on a ring of vanity lights as she shrugs off her shawl and shakes out a pair of wings.
Nate is immediately taken with this human angel named Lily (Megan Fox), and after a run-in with her carny boss (Rhys Ifans), the pair find themselves on the run. But this isn't a 'Thelma and Louise' type adventure of two partners against the world. Lily finds herself embroiled in the mess that led Nate to narrowly escape death in the desert, while Nate struggles between his love for this unique angel and his desperation to clear up the mess of his life – unfinished business with Happy (Bill Murray), a gangster who wants to off Nate and keep the winged beauty for himself.
Conceived twenty years ago as Glazer fell in love with wife Kelly Lynch (who plays Nate's support system, a stripper named Harriet), it's obvious that this is meant to play out as a beautiful, whimsical love story with a bittersweet twist of an ending. Though it's a film of adult themes from drugs to sex, Glazer manages to maintain a distinct sense of fairy tale whimsy. But he doesn't succeed in making a clear-cut narrative.
Weighing in at a brisk 91 minutes, Glazer only briefly flirts with the world outside this whirlwind love affair, and these all-too-brief moments end up being the most magical. Though positioned as a love story, 'Passion Play' is at its best when it shares ideas of desire and obsession. Seeing Fox behind the glass, alone and framed in light, offers a metaphor for our ravenous celebrity culture. Lily is on display as much as the actress who plays her, and though Nate is framed as the ne'er-do-well hero, he isn't all that different from mob boss Happy. Both fetishize Lily, obsess over her wings and beauty rather than her self. In fact, by the time Happy unleashes his cruelty, it almost seems false. Having seen his vulnerability, it's hard to buy his savagery. Lily tugs out Happy's humanity just as she had Nate's.
Unfortunately, though so central to the story, Lily is nothing more than an object of desire. Her sole purpose is to be an icon of beauty who saves Nate. Fox is given little chance to do anything but stretch her CG wings or cry, and though her soft, high-pitched voice works for this young and sheltered girl, there's little opportunity for Fox to prove her talents beyond being an object on display.
Rourke is fine as Nate, but he really doesn't offer the depth required to make Nate really shine. Though his obsession with Lily is palpable, it's hard to understand or feel the love he has for her. This, unfortunately, makes the plot more muddled as Happy shows his own humanity. Though he's clearly not an ideal suitor, when Happy offers true emotion, Murray infuses the lines with such honest passion that he begins to steal the show, and a bit of the heroic spotlight.
Ultimately, 'Passion Play' is a bi-polar love story rife with strengths and weaknesses. Glazer is able to make this idea of an adult fairy tale work more than it should, but not quite well enough. Moments of CG wings and obvious green screens clash with darker, gorgeous shots framed with great music. * It's easy to wonder if Glazer should have waited a little bit more, and gotten other directorial work under his belt to be able to frame the fantasy as well as the reality – especially when he reveals his whimsy-laden, bittersweet ending. Though it should offer a rush for the audience, it elicits laughs instead. There is magic in this story, no doubt. But I don't think Glazer has completely revealed it yet.
*Jimmy Scott fans will be disappointed to note that his involvement in the film is little more than music in the background. This isn't like his iconic performance in 'Twin Peaks.'