In her “Can’t Be Tamed” music video, Miley Cyrus is presented on a stage inside a cage as the rarest creature on Earth. She leaves her nest and walks, gauchely, toward the audience, whose flashing cameras cause her to reveal her huge black wings. What follows is an absurd performance of botched sexiness with lofty aesthetics trying to offer some kind of conceptual gravitas to nonsense. The bird woman in Passion Play, Lily (Megan Fox), is no less awkward than Avis cyrus, but incites, instead of gasping terror, a mesmerizing, erotic attraction from the few who see her wings get hard.
This rubbish affectation of a film finds Mickey Rourke doing his Mickey Rourke thing—a character in a Tom Waits song if you want to be generous, an ex-junkie cliché of himself if you don’t—who wakes up from a beating in the middle of the desert. There, Nate Poole (Rourke) finds a circus whose main attraction is Lily—the poor bird woman with real wings attached to her back, who dreams of seeing the ocean—and immediately falls for her. But the owner of the circus has already claimed first dibs, so Nate’s only going to get out of the carnival alive if Lily decides to escape with him. Which, of course, she does.
Too bad Nate, a trumpet player wanted dead by gangster Happy Shannon (Bill Murray), isn’t happy to just shag Lily, but must also make profit off of her avian traits. When Lily finds out Nate is trying to sell her to Happy as strip-club gold in exchange for his life, everything goes sour. Nate spends the rest of the movie trying to win her back and she spends the rest of the movie, whether stripping for a patron or bawling for her life, puckering her lips up, squinting her eyes in crass coquetry, and tilting her head in search of its fill light.
The women in Passion Play are either natural-born strippers willing to do anything for 20 bucks or fragile circumstantial strippers just one heroic guy away from snapping out of the sleazy life. Either way, they’re, as Nate puts it, “a miracle too rare and precious not to be protected,” but mostly the currency for deals between men. It would be giving the film too much credit to read the male characters’ fascination with the bird woman’s set of wings erecting itself in spectacular fashion as some kind of displaced transsexual fantasy. Its obliviousness to the metaphorical potential behind the woman’s rigid set of wings, even as Nate strokes and licks them during sex, makes an already unintentionally funny film just pitiful to watch.
Everything about Passion Play reads hokey, from the triteness of the dialogue, which achieves its zenith with “You ever smelled the ocean?,” to the scene where Nate storms into Lily’s plastic surgeon’s office just as the doctor is about to cut off her wings to beg her to keep all of her pre-op uniqueness, even if she just wants to be “like the other girls.” When a cringe-inducingly inept Fox asks Rourke, “You were so famous, handsome…what happened?,” you almost wonder if the whole thing isn’t just one big campy joke.