Half-Assembled Freak Shows and Forgotten Jazz Notes: Passion Play (2010)

For a variety of reasons, some films fall under the radar, despite having a notable cast and a legitimate storyline.  A notable example of this being the star drenched film Southland Tale.  Perhaps it is the post-apocalyptic themes paired with an image of urban Southern California that result in both films feeling distant and unfamiliar.  I have browsed upon a slew of negative reviews for Passion Play, which imply such impressions, but to me it is the other-worldliness of the film that makes it so good.  A film that combines drug abuse, angelic beings and a pimped named Happy can only prove to be entertaining.  However, it is writer and director Mitch Glazer's intimacy with the subject matter that pushes it from being simply entertaining to being absolutely fascinating.  It portrays a world that seems to occupy dreams, perhaps those of Glazer himself, making the title all the more relevant.  

Passion Play follows a dried-up jazz artist named Nate Poole (Mickey Rourke) as we flees from a jealous pimp with the ironic name of Happy, played with precision by Bill Murray.  After a near-death experience at the hands of one of Happy's lackeys Nate wanders upon a traveling freak show run by Sam Adamo (Rhys Ifans).  His show includes all the staples of a freak show such as the bearded lady, a sword swallower and even a fire breather.  However, Nate enters a small back room to discover a young girl with angel wings.  Instantly infatuated with her, Nate finds her trailer and meets the girl, finding out her name is Lily Luster (Megan Fox).  Her bizarre appendage and flattering looks lead Nate to the realization that she would make the perfect sacrifice to Happy, thus ensuring his future safety in the city.  After an elaborate meeting set-up involving an opera house and ramblings by jazz heavyweight Solomon Burke, Nate shows Happy his new discovery.  In the moments leading up to this, however, Nate after a lengthy discussion with Lily realizes his strong emotions for her and attempts to hide her from Happy.  Happy, nonetheless, extends his reach over the city to find Lily taking her from Nate after the two have an altercation.  What follows is a series of unsuccessful attempts by Nate to obtain Lily, ultimately resulting in reverting to an old drug habit, losing his money and an inevitable death.  However, it is in his moment of death that the film drops its narrative grounding allowing Nate to revisit the site of his original near death experience, implying that he was dead all along and that his bizarre run-in with an angelic girl was more heavenly than the viewers once assumed.

The film, in my opinion, is a case study of drug addiction, set in a desolate Hollywood backdrop.  Nate is a jazz musician who for whatever reason has lost his notoriety.  Perhaps it was a past drug habit that led to his downfall, but whatever the reason it helps to explain the films magical realism.  Everything seems surreal, invoking the notion that the viewers are witnessing a drug high of sorts.  If this is the case, it helps to explain Happy's rather notable control over Nate, who seems almost infantile when within earshot of Happy.  At the very least if it is not an issue with heroin, Nate is obviously an alcoholic.  Glazer incorporates rather notable scenes into his larger narrative, particularly ones in which Nate begs for money from a fellow musician who sympathetically offers him a large sum of cash.  It seems rather futile in the narrative, but when placed into a notion of Nate being a drug addict it makes perfect sense.  Also, Nate's initial brush with death can now be read as a drug overdose that becomes the films narrative, the reason the viewers are drawn back to one of the films opening scenes is because it is all just a vision of a dying drug addicts life.  Not to mention it helps explain the choice of Mickey Rourke for Nate given his own infamous past with drugs.

Passion Play is unusual and uncertain, but that is its brilliance.  I was thrilled by the entire cast, including Megan Fox who did a surprisingly good job.  I look forward to seeing more work by Glazer as a director and strongly recommend snagging a Blu-ray of Passion Play for your collection.

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