“Well, you know… It’s an art film.” — Bill Murray, on The Late Show With David Letterman, May 6th, 2011.
Handy rule of thumb: When Dave Letterman asks you about the latest movie you’re promoting and the nicest you can say is “It’s an art film”, it’s not a great sign for the movie. Even if you happen to be Bill Murray. In which case, congratulations, since you’re quite literally a genius. And it was nice of you to agree to appear in Passion Play. Clearly I was on the right track when I theorized that you’re a great friend. But apparently there are projects so eccentric that even the presence of the world’s greatest living screen comedian can’t salvage or make sensible.
When last I wrote about Passion Play, it was pre-release, and I could only guess at whether it would be a lost cult classic or a fascinating mistake. Well, it ain’t the former. Whatever happened here, David Lynch is probably to blame. Lynch’s films have been so influential on so many filmmakers that Passion Play‘s writer/director Mitch Glazer is sure to have been inspired by the work of Lynch, the undisputed king of oblique symbolism matched with retro kitsch and ominous atmosphere. There’s only one David Lynch, however, and so should it ever be.
Passion Play isn’t without charms. There are several still frames here (courtesy of world-class cinematographer Chris Doyle) that might make uncommonly beautiful magazine cologne ads, but as a moving story it’s simultaneously nonsensical and astonishingly generic. There are cliches in play here that are as old as cinema itself.
Mickey Rourke plays a hard-luck saxophone player — is there another kind in movies? — who is in a very bad place. A fearsome gangster wants Mickey dead because Mickey fucked the guy’s wife. Allegedly. All that stuff (like plot and incident) happens before the movie starts. I couldn’t even tell you what kind of music Mickey’s character is supposed to play, since the film’s orchestral score plays loudly over all his performance scenes. Mickey does a decent sax-synch though. Hey, wouldn’t it be great if this movie were a Wrestler-style redemption tale about what became of that shirtless sax player from The Lost Boys?
It’s not, though. Instead, Passion Play is exactly what you think it is, if you know your film history. Let’s just say that I don’t need to write a review with spoiler warnings, seeing as how the movie’s title itself is a spoiler.
So in the first five minutes, Mickey’s character is knocked out by a gangster henchman, played by UFC champion Chuck Liddell (one of the few people who could conceivably restrain Mickey Rourke.) Chuck drives Mickey out to the desert and is about to shoot him in the head when a stampede of passing Native Americans intercedes. Really.
So Mickey wanders through the desert until he comes upon a traveling sideshow, dwarves and sword-swallowers and all. (There’s that old David Lynch feeling again.) He happens upon an angel in a box, a young woman with literal wings growing out of her back being kept in a glass cage.
She’s played by Megan Fox, which means that if she’s in a cage, it was Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg who put her there. Perhaps recognizing a fellow ostracized iconoclast, or perhaps because “WOMAN”, Mickey breaks Megan free. While on the run, they fall in love.
Suspend some disbelief here, since as much as I adore Mickey Rourke, he’s looking particularly Frankensteinian here. The costume designers have slapped a Boris Karloff hairpiece on his head and precariously balanced a hat several sizes too small on top. It’s like those scenes in plenty of ’80s movies where kids try to disguise their favorite monster from the authorities. By the time Mickey starts sharing kisses with Megan, who is shot and lit by Chris Doyle to look particularly young-Liz-Taylor-esque, it’s like an interspecies relationship.
Somewhere in their brief courtship, somewhere after the meeting but before the kissing, Mickey sells Megan out to the gangster who’s after him, in a lame ploy to save his skin (such as it is). He tells the guy that he found a real genuine angel, and just imagine how much money there is in angels. The trips around the evangelical circuit alone could mean millions (my words, not his.) The gangster takes Mickey up on the trade, but then Mickey falls in love and has to save his girl.
The problem is the surprise is the casting. Bill Murray plays the gangster, whose name is ‘Happy’ Shannon, real name Michael Shannon — also, coincidentally, the name of a real actor who would have been much better casting. I’m one of the world’s biggest Bill Murray fans, but this wasn’t the role he was born to play. He actually did play a role like this once before, in the very underrated 1993 flick Mad Dog And Glory, but there it worked because he was playing a gangster who moonlighted as a stand-up comic, and he was playing against a very restrained Robert DeNiro. Mickey Rourke doesn’t read on screen as “restrained.” Somehow when De Niro played like he was scared of Bill Murray, the joke worked, but it doesn’t here. Maybe because Ive seen it before. Maybe it’s because Murray looks so cartoonish in Passion Play — probably not for nothing is he made up to resemble a cross between Bob Evans and Swifty Lazar. Is this one of those inside- Hollywood movies in disguise? Is it a Hollywood allegory? (Because that would be even worse.)
At any rate, as welcome as Bill Murray forever is on any movie screen I’m watching, he just doesn’t come off as intended here. He really is meant to be the heavy. There’s some humanity there, as there always is with Murray, but in the end his character is meant to intimidate and interfere. He’s literally supposed to be a devilish figure, and Mickey and Megan are supposed to be running away, not towards. Case in point: There’s a scene where Mickey slips into Murray’s lair to rescue his angel, and when he walks in on them he finds her sitting on a couch watching old Burt Lancaster movies. With Bill Murray. That looks like fun! That’s not something to run from. If it were me, personally, I’d pull up a chair.
So the movie doesn’t make sense, in an essential way. If you’re working in broad strokes, as this movie is meant to, then your bad guys really need to be bad. Mitch Glazer deserves credit for stacking the deck with fascinating peripheral players, such as Rhys Ifans, The Wire‘s Robert Wisdom, and soul legend Solomon Burke in what must have been one of his last prominent appearances (even though King Solomon is weirdly only filmed from a distance), but on a central level Glazer has miscast his movie. Maybe if Bill Murray and Mickey Rourke switched roles could this particular movie have worked, but unfortunately I really doubt it.
Passion Play is an indulgent mess of a movie that is funny in places it isn’t meant to be. For me, it was worth watching, because I’m insane. I would watch a shot-for-shot remake of The Color Purple if it starred Mickey Rourke and Bill Murray. Also, no matter who you are, you’d probably laugh pretty hard at the last few shots of this movie. Again, they’re not meant to be funny, but they really, really are. I would explain more, but that would be giving away the ending. Even though the film’s title already does.
I feel bad poking fun at a movie that obviously meant a lot to somebody (at least one person, anyway), but I can’t help myself. Maybe I shouldn’t have written this piece. I guess sometimes when I spend time watching these movies, I have to try to make sense out of the experience any way I can, which for me involves writing about it. And hey, maybe you have read all of this and I somehow convinced you to check out the movie, in which case I provided free advertising. To those people I say: it’s kind of worth it. There aren’t two movies like it. Beats the hell out of Transformers. Just don’t expect it to be comprehensible and you’ll be fine. And somebody, please, print me up a T-shirt of that final image.