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THE PASSAGE Is a Surrealist Chase Scene That’s Stupid Brilliant (Sundance Review)

THE PASSAGE Is a Surrealist Chase Scene That’s Stupid Brilliant (Sundance Review)

Philip Burgers’ The Passage is an all or nothing prospect that blends Super Deluxe insanity with silent film sensibilities. The show stars Burgers as Phil, a joyful mute who encounters a host of different people and activities while on the run from unnamed attackers. You’d only get the faintest idea of that plot from the first episode, which opens with a crew of internationals jumping out of a plane, leaving Phil to react to an imminent crash the only way a clear-headed person might: by pulling a burrito out of his pocket to gnaw on.

Like Wes Anderson directing one of Dr. Steve Brule’s dreams, the absurdist chase walks a tightrope between poetic moments backed by indie world music and profound stupidity. By not ever falling completely to one side, The Passage is a unique piece of art that showcases Burgers’ world-class talent as an unassuming clown. He’s a Dad Bod Chance the Gardner who doesn’t have the rubbery face of Jim Carrey or the hidden gymnast physicality of Buster Keaton, yet still quietly magnetizes your attention.

The secret to his success here is that, whether running through a church band’s equipment or desperately climbing aboard a fishing boat, Burgers never asks for the laugh. He’s purely in the moment, living in the surreality, which is why he earns it.

The inaugural episode has a serious international flavor, including stints in a Japanese sauna, a Spanish church service, a Norwegian trawler, and a Haitian family household that are simultaneously flung far across the globe and right next door to each other. The inexplicable plot and Phil’s freewheeling lurch from location to location are aided by the language barrier and a fluid shooting style that connects the dots with tracking shots. These transitions (particularly one where Phil shifts from fully dressed and bewigged in church to sporting tighty-whities in a sauna) have us feeling like we’re watching SNL behind the scenes between sketches.

Phil’s instantaneous acceptance of his new surroundings challenges us to mirror his attitude, relaxing into the passenger seat, knowing we can’t know where the ride will take us. Likewise, his commitment to taking the gag to its fullest intensity makes the trip worthwhile. In one scene, a young worker at the spa (Krystel Roche) gets him a sandwich on the drive back to her house, and Phil has a knock-down wrestling match with the hoagie to cheer her up. Burgers throws his body into all of The Passage.

Producer/director Kitao Sakurai’s background in both music videos and comedy (The Eric Andre Show) shows in The Passage, which utilizes not only music video visuals, but also the logic of music videos where nonsense can reign because people are lip syncing to a disembodied groove anyway. The show isn’t surreal in the Michel Gondry, robots and skeletons dancing to Daft Punk kind of way, but it still dips into a similar pool of logic to create a world where people don’t act as we know them to in real life and a half-dozen adventures can be crammed into a very short space.

Far from alienating, though, there’s a powerfully hopeful streak running through The Passage because of the hospitality Phil receives, as well as Phil’s permanent appreciation of it. For whatever reason, people are always giving him soup, and there’s something about it all that makes you want to step outside and finally meet your neighbors.

The one question the first episode leaves you with is how long they can maintain the low stakes tone. The trade-off with surrealism is that the random nature of the events leaves them all feeling meaningless. Phil doesn’t seem to be learning anything along the way, we have no idea why he’s running in the first place, and it seems unlikely that the show will ever give up the game to explain it. Phil’s a delightful, empty slate who runs because he has to, and it’s really none of our business what will happen if he gets caught. If The Passage doesn’t invest in any plot beyond the chase for chase’s sake, and if it doesn’t up the ante on the intensity of the surprise encounters, it runs the risk of becoming repetitive.

Even so, The Passage is an alluring showcase of humane comedic talent that pushes the boundary of what we laugh at. It’s like having just the right amount of your favorite soup, made by a chef who’s added a single mystery ingredient you can’t quite place.

4 out of 5 gravity-obeying burritos

Images: Super Deluxe

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