On the Gilded Wings of Pretension Case File #193: Passion Play
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There are few things as tragicomic as the passion project gone awry. It’s one thing to whiff with work-for-hire. It’s quite another to bomb the story you believe you were born to tell. Put yourself in the Italian loafers of Mitch Glazer. Within the comedy world, he’s a Zelig figure with a knack for being in the right place at the right time with the right people. In the mid-’70s, the right place at the right time happened to be the hallowed halls of 30 Rock, where as a young writer for Crawdaddy, Glazer followed a Falstaffian young television sketch performer named John Belushi, whom Glazer dubbed “the most dangerous man on TV” in a cover story that went a long way toward cementing the legend of the original cast of Saturday Night Live.
Glazer helped make Saturday Night Live the epicenter of mid-’70s hipness, and he didn’t hurt Crawdaddy’s already vaunted reputation in the process. Saturday Night Live never stopped repaying Glazer for the favor. Michael O’Donoghue, the evil genius often regarded as one of the most brilliant minds ever to bless the show as a writer or producer, became Glazer’s writing partner on the 1979 dark comedy Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video and the 1989 blockbuster Scrooged, a vehicle for O’Donoghue’s old Saturday Night Live buddy Bill Murray. Glazer made quite a name for himself both as a journalist and a screenwriter, but for the past two decades he has nursed a dream as idiotic as it is boldly sincere: a deeply personal neo-noir rich in symbolism and atmosphere about a melancholy jazz musician and his doomed romance with a woman with angel wings.
This was a story close to his heart. This was a story he was put on earth to tell. He wouldn’t just be one of a series of screenwriters, as he was on previous projects like Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations (where David Mamet came in at the last minute and did uncredited rewrites as a favor to producer Art Linson) or the Al Pacino/Colin Farrell vehicle The Recruit. This would be Glazer’s vision. He wouldn’t just write. He’d also make his directorial debut. Passion Play is such a passion project that “passion” is in its name. It might as well have been called Labor Of Love.
When it came to casting, Glazer once again proved lucky. For the lead role of a formerly heroin-addicted horn player angling for redemption, he cast his old high-school buddy Mickey Rourke, fresh off a comeback fueled by The Wrestler and Iron Man 2. For the female lead he snagged Megan Fox, one of the preeminent sex symbols of our time and a major box-office draw due to Transformers and Transformers: The Revenge Of The Dark Side Of The Fallen. When a 20something actor named Toby Kebbell dropped out of the crucial role of a mobster who forms the third corner in a romantic triangle with Fox and Rourke, Glazer’s old pal Murray volunteered to fill in. Since Murray is not the kind of man to go around doling out favors willy-nilly, or doling out favors at all, he obviously must have really believed in the script or in Glazer. My guess is Glazer.
It’s not easy acting opposite actors as famously intimidating as Rourke and Murray, but Fox had done such a smash-up job on the film, at least according to early reports, that Rourke hailed her as the “most talented” actress he has ever worked with. Glazer went even further, crowing in a Vanity Fair Q&A that after they filmed their first scene together Rourke pulled him aside and said, “She’s fucking amazing! Oh my God, it’s going to be so good!”
Everything was coming up Milhouse for Glazer until the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Glazer’s vulnerable little orphan was eviscerated. The brickbats didn’t end with the critics. The perpetually unpredictable Rourke told the New York blog Vulture that the film was receiving a limited release “because it’s not very good,” dismissed the film as “terrible” and lumped it in with the dozens of other terrible films he had made over the course of his sometimes glorious, sometimes shitty career. Rourke later backtracked, but the damage was done: Glazer’s labor of love was officially DOA. The film Glazer had dreamed about making for two decades and cast with three giant stars, two of them genuine icons, received only a tiny theatrical release before appearing on DVD.
The problems begin with what should be the film’s greatest strength: Rourke’s performance. In order for Passion Play to come off as anything but a laughable humiliation—as you will see from the clips below, embarrassment isn’t a strong enough word—for all involved, the film needs the reborn Rourke of The Wrestler, a world-weary survivor whose gruff exterior just barely masks naked vulnerability. Instead it gets the Mickey Rourke of countless forgotten direct-to-DVD movies. And speaking of that gruff exterior: Passion Play ultimately takes the form of a tragic romance, so it’d be nice if its male lead didn’t look like he was wearing an ill-fitting Mickey Rourke Halloween mask. Rourke was once a beautiful man. Now he looks like he skinned that beautiful man, aged his head in water for decades, then strapped it on his head.
Passion Play banks way too hard on Rourke’s magnetism to carry it through its rough spots, which begin with the first frame and end with the last. Glazer hasn’t bothered to write a character for his old friend, just a blurry noir caricature of the soulful sufferer to be filled in with fond memories of Barfly, Diner, Body Heat, and other films Rourke made when he was still young and hungry. Passion Play needs Rourke at his ragged best. Instead, he seems to have decided to quit acting just before filming began without telling anyone and went ahead and played the role anyway. Rourke shows up, hits his marks, and says his lines, but what he does can’t quite be considered “acting” in even the loosest sense. He’s onscreen all the time, but he’s not exactly present.
Can you blame him? Passion Play opens with Rourke’s soulful horn player escaping death at the hands of a hitman hired to murder him as punishment for fucking the wife of mobster Bill Murray. Just before the deed can be done, however, a mysterious gentleman in what appears to be karate pajamas kills the killer for unknown reasons, then wanders away, as folks tend to do in those circumstances. Rourke then wanders through the desert until he encounters a mysterious sideshow and its most beguiling attraction: a Manic Pixie Dream Bird-Girl played by a sad-eyed, pouty-lipped Megan Fox. Yes, Rourke falls instantly in love with a beautiful woman with fully formed wings on her back. She’s an angel, or rather a bird-girl who can fly, sort of, but only when the wind is particularly strong.
Like many of the oddities I’ve written about here, Passion Play presents unique acting challenges for its leads. In the scene where he’s introduced to Fox, for example, Rourke has to decide exactly how to play encountering the only woman in the known universe with fully functional wings for the first time. Does he go all-in with shock and awe and delight? Or does he look at her and think, “Huh, a bird-girl. There’s something you don’t see everyday”? Instead, Rourke ends up splitting difference; he seems impressed, but not overwhelmed.
If there is humor inherent in the relationship between a down-and-out musician and a sideshow freak with fully formed wings, Glazer doesn’t acknowledge it. Any film that denies its innate absurdity as violently as Passion Play can only prompt unintentional laughter. Fox’s winged condition is treated with a sense of solemnity more befitting a Holocaust drama, and consequently never stops being funny.
Passion Play wants to live in a world of metaphor, symbolism, allusion, illusion, and archetype, but it can’t quite give up the modern world, which leads to bizarre juxtapositions, like a preposterous scene where Rourke has to keep Fox from getting her wings removed by a cosmetic surgeon so she can look just like everyone else.
“Since when does normal win a goddamned prize?” Rourke asks aloud in what sadly qualifies as one of the screenplay’s subtler lines. That is a good question, though Glazer and Passion Play clearly expect to win a prize just for being weird. Rourke keeps Fox from getting her wings removed, but cannot keep her from falling into the clutches of a mobster played by Bill Murray. In one of many elements of the film seemingly borrowed wholesale from The Wrestler, Fox has an opportunity to sacrifice herself, Christ-like, for Rourke’s benefit when she gets Murray to promise not to kill him as long as she stays with him.
During a Rourke-Fox sex scene involving Fox in full-on bird-girl mode, I came to suspect that Glazer has long wanted to fuck a parrot but had to Trojan-horse his sick desires into a socially accepted form. Voila! Suddenly we have a film about a man who desires a woman who isn’t technically a bird but comes awfully close. Dig the slow-motion feather in this clip:
Once Murray takes Fox away from him, Rourke does what Rourke does in movies like this: He drinks. He smokes. He stares soulfully at a briefcase. He sells his saxophone to buy smack. He dreams of Fox. He writhes in seedy existential despair. Eventually, Rourke rouses himself from his existential stupor when a friend conveniently happens to mention that he’s heard of a sordid private club where the wealthy and debauched gather to gawk at—get this—some crazy woman with wings. Holy shit, that’s just who Rourke has been obsessing about!
Rourke hightails it over to the club, but Murray isn’t about to let Fox go without a fight. Rourke and Fox race to the top of a building. A goon follows in pursuit. Oh no! They’re trapped! If only one of them had wings and the other a bleak reckoning to confront! Against some of the least-convincing green screen this side of The Room, Rourke leaps off the building only to have Fox catch him. She can fly! She can fly! She can fly! Because, you know, she’s an angel and it turns out Rourke really did die in the desert. (SPOILER!) It’s all been a dying man’s unspeakably pretentious fantasy!
Glazer also told Vanity Fair he made “exactly” the movie he wanted to make, with the people he wanted to make it with. I believe him. Passion Play captures an unusually pure vision of mind-boggling pretension and miscalculation. Glazer believed in his story to such an extent it blinded him to its innate ridiculousness and unfeasibility.
Passion Play is a boondoggle 20 years in the making. It turns out Glazer didn’t need guardian angels like Rourke and Murray to help him make a film that never should have been made, from a screenplay that should have filled him with shame; he needed O’Donoghue to come back from the dead and tell him to stop being such a pompous ass. Glazer must have been funny once. If not, why would people like Murray and O’Donoghue want to collaborate closely with him? He similarly must have been talented, though you’d never imagine so by his work here. Then again, any hack can make a mediocre movie like say, The Recruit. It takes real vision, however misguided, to make a film this singularly awful.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco