There is an idea for a movie in "Passion Play" that's worth exploring, but at this point it's not visible on screen. Debuting Friday night at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, "Play" stars Mickey Rourke, Bill Murray and Megan Fox in her first significant dramatic role. None of the actors embarrass themselves, but one in particular doesn't elevate the material as needed and it's not who you think.
Set in present day -- or so we think -- "Play" centers on a struggling trumpet player Nate (Rourke) who has irked a powerful gangster, Happy (Murray), to the point that the impatient criminal decides to have him eliminated once and for all. After being kidnapped by one of Happy's associates and brought to the desert for an execution, the film makes its first strange turn as a quartet of white clothed Indians shoot Nate's executioner thereby saving his life. Before he can find out why they intervened, the Indians are gone and Nate is left to on his own to try and get home. Crossing the desert and seemingly into Mexico (or that's where he was brought -- it's a tad unclear), Nate runs into a traveling carnival act run by a seedy-looking ringmaster (a wasted Rhys Ifans). Looking for a phone, Nate ventures into the big carnival tent only to make a strange discovery. Sitting in a glass cage on display for all paying customers to gawk at is a beautiful woman who surprises our hero when real wings extend from her backside. It seems Lily (Fox) was raised by the crazy carnival owner as a child and has had little contact with outside world for most of her life. She's sad and lonely and before Nate can think it through, the two of them have escaped the three ring circus and are headed back to the big city. Somewhere along the way, Nate decides to end his feud with Happy (and perhaps save his life in the long term), by giving the gangster Lily as a money making opportunity. Of course, he quickly realizes he's so in love with her he's spun his own life out of control by making the sacrifice. Lily, on the other hand, doesn't seem to know what she wants and Happy, well, he's fallen just as hard for Lily as Nate did. It's a credit to writer and director Mitch Glazer that plot wise, the film is not as predictable from that point as you might think. What Glazer can't do, however, is create a tone that works with his cast or the subject matter overall.
"Play" has many awkward moments because Glazer can't seem to decide on just what the tone of the picture is. A good chunk of it feels inspired by David Lynch and then other sections feel as though Werner Herzog was on directing that day. Making matters worse are that his actors, cinematographer and editor don't seem as though they are on the same page either. Unexpectedly, Rourke is the biggest problem with this direction as he seems out of place from the first encounter with Lily. Its not that you don't believe any man would fall for this beauty, but the recent Oscar nominee can barely convey that instant or addictive passion.
Fox is better than you'd think, but the role fails her. Lily's arc is basically that she wants to be accepted and not see herself as "ugly" because of her wing deformity. It's scary to think she had more of an arc to play with in "Jennifer's Body" than in this film. The former "Transformers" actress strains at times and most critics, filmmakers and casting directors will leave the theater as unclear about Fox's true talents as they were when they arrived.
The only actor who really comes out unscathed is Murray who seems to understand where the material should be going (perhaps his experiences working with Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson helped). He makes Happy very evil and bluntly sinister. You believe this guy will kill anyone, even when Murray's making you laugh doing it.
The acquisition prospects for "Passion" aren't clear so don't expect to see this one at your local multiplex anytime soon. It's certainly not a disaster, but feels as though it needs a lot more work in the editing room. You almost want Glazer to go more confidently in the Lynch direction and drop some of the more conventional Hollywood scenes that seem bizarrely out of place. That's not something the film's producers want to hear, but it would certainly result in a better film. There also is a CG sequence at the end which could use a tad more time spent with a CG artist (ie, money). Or, it should be re-edited to feel a bit more realistic after it provided a few unintended chuckles from the audience. Overall though, in its present state there will be zero interest from major studios or mini-majors looking to jump on board this one. At best, it could be a Magnolia, NewMarket or IFC Films who comes on board. "Play" for a niche, art house audience and that's pretty much it.
Still, for many, the first question regarding "Passion Play" will be regarding Fox's performance. Is the 24-year-old sex symbol a true actress or has she made a grave error not cashing another paycheck with the third "Transformers" film? Unfortunately, we still don't know. Her wings were clipped on this one before she ever set foot on set.
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