It is no secret that I am a huge fan of cinematographers and the work they produce for a film. Obviously because film is a visual medium, I believe that the image or visuals are the most important aspect to a film. Even if a film is bad, it can still keep me interested if it is filmed imaginatively. While there are a huge number of cinematographers that I admire and respect, (like Michael Ballhaus, Robert Richardson, Rodrigo Prieto, Jack Cardiff and Roger Deakins, to name but a few) there is only one that will make me search out a film just to see his work within, and that is the Aussie ex-pat Christopher Doyle. He is an absolute genius with light and composition, and I first became acquainted with his work during his incredible run of films that he made with director Wong Kar-Wai. Since then, whenever Doyle adds a new film to his filmography, I do everything in my power to find it and check it out (even if it means suffering through M. Night Shyamalan’s terrible “Lady In The Water”).
“Passion Play” is a recent film that Doyle worked on, which has unfortunately been sitting on the shelf for a while. After its recent release, it appeared to be obvious as to why as the film was savagely trashed by both critics and movie-goers alike. However, none of the negative press was going to stop me from seeing the film for the reasons I mentioned above.
“Passion Play” is the directorial debut from writer Mitch Glazer and also happens to be a “passion” project for him, as he has been trying to get this film made now for around twenty years . In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Nate (played by Mickey Rourke), a washed-up musician who in a previous life actually used to be somebody and was quite famous but ended up losing it all to women and drugs. He is now a shell of his former self and plays in tiny bands at clubs or at functions for basically loose change, struggling to make ends meet. While sleeping at his (very) modest apartment, he is awoken by a gangster, beaten, thrown into a car and driven out to the desert where he is to be murdered. His crime: he had slept with the wife of kingpin gangster, “Happy” Shannon (Bill Murray). However just as his life is about to be snuffed out, he is saved by a group of passing Indians who kill his supposed assassin.
From here Nate picks himself up and wonders the desert looking for a way home, when he stumbles upon a carnival. Figuring that there must be a phone within, he enters the carnival and ends up coming across one of the carnival’s main attractions, “Lily, The Bird Woman” (Megan Fox). Lily sits in a glass booth that is enveloped in darkness until a customer enters her tent, where she slowly brings up the lights for the stranger to stare at her. As soon as Nate lays eyes on Lily, it is love at first sight and after the show he goes to her trailer to convince her to leave the carnival with him. It is while he is at her trailer that he finds out that the “bird-woman” thing is more than just an “act” and that Lily’s wings are in fact very real. After convincing Lily to leave, Nate finally thinks his luck is changing, and he even thinks of a way to make good with “Happy” and to get his life back. However things are not that simple and Nate learns quickly that it is always a dangerous thing to make a deal with a gangster, but “Happy” isn’t the only person he has to worry about as Sam (Rhys Ifans), the owner of the carnival, is tracking him down to get his star attraction back.
As I mentioned earlier, this film has been trashed almost unanimously, however I really enjoyed the film. I must admit right up front that I may have been seduced by Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous images into thinking this is a better film than it is, so my opinion may not be reliable in this instance. An example of Doyle’s exquisite work is the first meeting between Nate and Lily at the carnival. It is so beautifully shot, and starts on Nate’s “side” of the glass while he is staring at her, and the camera moves slowly until the image is reversed and it is Lily staring at Nate. It is classic Doyle and it create a moment, and it is easy to see why Nate so easily falls in love with her.
Another thing that I really liked about the film was the quiet atmosphere that it possesses. It just has a serine quality to it, (almost to the point of whimsy) that creates a kind-of magic realism that made it easy to enter into this world. It almost feels like a dream in certain parts of the film. However as the reviews seem to suggest, this is a film with a number of flaws. Unfortunately the performance from Megan Fox as Lily just isn’t strong enough and you can see her struggling to emote. Being alongside such great thespians like Murray and Rourke doesn’t help her cause, and while you can see that she is trying, ultimately it just feels so forced, with it never once feeling real or in the moment. The biggest problem with Fox however, is actually her appearance. While it is known amongst my friends that I am not a fan of Fox at all, there is no denying that she is naturally a very attractive girl, so it is shocking to see what she has done to her lips in this film. They appear to be so full of Botox that they do not move (which also doesn’t help in trying to emote) and actually look quite disgusting with their plastic appearance. Even worse is that they are so distracting that they take you out of the film.
Apparently Mitch Glazer and Mickey Rourke are lifelong friends and it appears that Rourke has taken the role to help out his mate to get the film made. It is not that his performance is bad, he is too good a performer for that, but it feels more like he is going through the motions rather than this was a project that he fully believed in and wanted to do. I will say that there are a couple of moments where he is really brave and does excel in, because there are times when Nate’s life mirrors that of Rourke’s own life (particularly the fact of once being a huge star and losing it all), and he embraces these moments and exposes some of his own pain in them.
Originally the role of “Happy” Shannon was to be played by another actor altogether but he ended up leaving the role after a couple of days because he felt that he was inadequate in the role and couldn’t match it on-screen with Rourke (who he apparently idolized). Another of Glazer’s friends ended up stepping into the role to save the film, and once again Bill Murray is excellent as “Happy” and really seems to be enjoying himself. However he does have a dreadfully corny moment (which is more a problem of the writing, rather than the performance) when he explains why he has always hated his nickname of “Happy”, only to end the tale by saying this is the first time the name is apt (give me a break! Where is a bucket?!?!)
The biggest flaw of “Passion Play” though is it’s ending, which just does not work at all, and worse, it makes everything that has gone on before it, false and pointless. I know that this is a project that meant the world to Mitch Glazer, but it appears that in this instance he was too close to the material. He really needed to step back from it and notice that the ending didn’t work. You would think that in the two decades he has been trying to get the film made that somebody would have mentioned just how bad the ending was. This may be the reason for the terrible reviews, and although I am not going to spoil the ending here I will say that this is the kind of film that does not need a twist ending.
Reading back on this review, it certainly sounds like I disliked the film, which just isn’t the case at all. I actually had quite a good time with “Passion Play” and have no problem recommending it, but I was not oblivious to its flaws. The main reason I saw the film was for Christopher Doyle’s cinematography and he does not disappoint (he rarely does), the film is consistently stunning to look at and if for just this reason alone, it is worth checking out.
3 ½ Stars.
Incidentally since this film, Christopher Doyle has gone on to lens four more films, all Asian, the first being the very hard-to-find Chinese film “Showtime”, another Chinese film called “Til Death Do Us Part”, and two strange Japanese films, “Rabbit Horror 3D” and the soft-core “pink” film “Underwater Love” (which thankfully has just gotten U.K distribution, meaning it will eventually be easier to find). I look forward to them all!