By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 3, 2011 at 3:09AM
When "Passion Play" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it became the object of instant derision. Variety pointed out the "near-painful hipness," while Screen deemed it "little more than a whimsical curio." The bad buzz snowballed into the imminent release of "Passion Play" on DVD after a very brief limited theatrical run. Its journey into the no-man's land of straight-to-video was possibly secured by star Mickey Rourke, who told a New York magazine reporter in April that "Passion Play" was "a terrible movie." He later ate his words, but the damage was done.
The reality is that "Passion Play" has a few good ideas that simply don't hold together. More of a miscalculation than an outright dud, it takes the form of a wildly surreal western fantasy, something that Chilean madman Alejandro Jodorowsky ("El Topo") could have executed with more rigorous invention. Writer-director Mitch Glazer, however, screenwriter of "The Recruit," falls back on lifeless archetypes and boring melodrama in a story that either begs to reject those familiar ingredients or excel at them.
His main cast inhabit the roles expected of them. Rourke plays sad trumpeter Nate Pool, a wizened loner of "The Wrestler" variety, all washed with no place to go. An early scene finds him dragged to the desert by a mob boss' henchman, and escaping execution thanks to unexpected defense from an inexplicable group of saviors clad in white. He stumbles through the landscape and happens upon a demented freak show circus, where cruel taskmaster Sam (Rhys Ifans) keeps the angelic Lily (Megan Fox) hostage. A sorrowful creature with massive feathered wings emerging from her back, Lily's otherworldly condition would seem at home in an "X-Men" movie, but in this context it's simply an offbeat device that extends the movie's aimless brand of mystery.
Playing a dazed seductress with ethereal qualities basically requires Fox to look good in overstylized lighting schemes and stare deeply into Rourke's mournful eyes. These tragic-but-bland creatures were made for one another. Sure enough, they soon hit the road, with Lily's original owner on her tail. Complicating matters, the merciless gangster Happy Shannon (Bill Murray) insists that Nate owes him a favor and demands he hand girl over. Everyone wants a piece of Megan Fox--it's like Hollywood after the first "Transformers" movie.
Murray, characteristically deadpan while hiding behind a pair of gonzo shades, looks as confused about the plot as anyone else. Glazer's curiously symbolic, directionless narrative has more in common with the videogame that might accompany a more coherent treatment of its story. It has a dazzling noir lighting scheme (thanks to ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle) and the basic setup has a familiar dramatic arc. But the combination of inexplicable ingredients, mismatched performances and a murky vision call to mind the infamous Lindsay Lohan bomb "I Know Who Killed Me," another case where arthouse aspirations dissolve into campy execution.
Even the screenplay acknowledges its fundamental craziness. "I just wanna get the fuck outta this nuthouse," Nate says, in his most sincere moment. The back sleeve of a pre-release DVD for "Passion Play" boasts that the "cast accounts for more than $4.7 billion in box office," but the movie's biggest triumph is that it makes that pricey gang look gloriously cheap.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? After a mediocre limited release, "Passion Play" will go straight to the bargain bin on DVD.
criticWIRE grade: C