Judge Brett Cullum is busy watching Madonna act like a virgin, directing for the very first time.
"The problem with treating your body like a cash register is that you always feel empty."—A.K.
Madonna is a woman who has enough business savvy to build a music empire. She has against all odds forged a pop career that has spanned a few eras, staying in the spotlight for over three decades and counting. Everything she touches turns to gold, except one thing: movies. I'm not sure why her sense of the lyrical and theatrical never translates well to film, or why she's never really honest when acting unless she is playing a variation of her own core persona. Consider the ample evidence of Shanghai Surprise or Swept Away. And before you bring up Desperately Seeking Susan or Evita, remember those characters are sly variations on Madonna's real life personality and not eligible in this debate. So here comes Filth and Wisdom—her debut as director—which is not the total car crash you would expect or have heard from critics. Then again, it's nothing to write home about either, proving only mildly interesting without any searing hooks to make it a must see. Filth and Wisdom plays out exactly like Madonna comes off: a little too wise about silly subjects to take seriously. It's all kink but has only a slight amount of smarts, a slick surface without any depth to back it up. It's a three minute pop song posing as a ninety minute movie.
Facts of the Case
The film centers on three London flat mates who all dream big but live desperately. We have A.K. (Eugene Hutz, Everything Is Illuminated) who fronts a band (the real life Gogol Bordello), but has to fund his dreams of international superstardom by moonlighting as a male sadomasochistic prostitute. He often sports ringmaster outfits while whipping his clients, and they seem satisfied by simply being physically and verbally abused by him. Then we have Holly (Holly Weston, Splintered) who is struggling to become a serious ballerina, and in the meantime is learning how to strip to pay her bills. Juliette (Vicky McClure, Birth Day) completes our trio as a pharmacist technician saving up to become a nurse in Africa. She is subsidizing this by stealing pills and putting up a false donation cup near her cash register.
The lesson to be learned from all of these characters seems to be that it's okay to dream big, but you better be prepared to get more than a little dirty along the way to make things happen. Madonna herself embodies this idea, so it's not far removed from her own life story. Is it any mistake we have a singer in a band or a ballerina when Madonna was those things in her early career? And the aspiring nurse wants to save African children? Madonna not only directed this piece, but co-wrote the script. It certainly will be interesting for her fans to see what she dwells on and what the Material Girl finds fascinating. I'm not sure what the rest of the world will see, though.
The actors are all quite natural, even when their storylines seem a bit forced. Hutz is a likable fellow, and it's hard not to fall for his charm when he looks soulfully into the camera and tells you he is going to heaven merely because he is brutally honest. He shines brilliantly whenever we see him fronting his real life band, and the actor manages to sell the idea he is a sadomasochistic call boy all too easily. Weston and McClure both look like younger incarnations of Madonna, and seem to do fine with what they are given. Richard E. Grant (How to Get Ahead in Advertising) pops up as a blind poet, and his part is there to serve as inspiration for our trio. He's a guy who has literally "seen it all," and now sits in wistful darkness waiting for new inspiration.
Okay, all the right ingredients are here. Good actors, some engaging scenarios, and a raucous score to bounce off. So why doesn't Filth and Wisdom work? The problem is Madonna seems to think this is all she needs, and forgets about a story that progresses everyone from one point to the next. There's not much development, and the plot never goes anywhere except from one scene of minor humiliation to the next. In a strange way the film feels dated, because we're supposed to be shocked by all this S&M imagery and gender bending, but the director herself got us all over that back in the early '90s. It's just not enough to see a man with a handlebar mustache in full drag, or a stripper struggling with a pole while "Erotica" blares in the background. What is shocking is how provincial and reserved a movie called Filth and Wisdom can be. I was expecting hearty shots of both, but got very little of each. Surely Madonna has a naughtier mind than this, and she's holding out on us.
The DVD is a bare bones affair. That is a real pity given that fans would be intrigued by a chance to hear Madonna speak about her first film. I suspect she wasn't willing to, as this product was developed during her divorce from filmmaker Guy Ritchie. Also it failed to generate much buzz, and it seems Madonna refrains from talking about projects that don't go over as big as she'd like. We only get the trailer as a supplement. The transfer is fine, although the film itself has a grunge slanted aesthetic. It looks dirty. The surround sound is a clean and concise affair, mainly centered on middle speakers where the dialogue comes across clearly. But one thing you won't miss is Madonna's name which is on every side of the cover as well as on the label on the DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are some moments in here I truly liked, and the film does have memorable characters. If you come with the right expectations then Filth and Wisdom might be a good ride. Fans of Gogol Bordello will be pleased to hear the group perform, and Madonna fanatics get to analyze what it all means in relation to their idol. It does somehow hold your interest, and I credit the actors and intriguing scenarios for this. It's certainly not a total car crash, and some of it is even charming if you like seeing artists flail around in minor moral dilemmas.
Filth and Wisdom is simply an interesting experiment in which somebody gives Madonna all the resources to make a film, and we get to see what she comes up with. It's the story of three people who want to be stars, and seem to have no compunction selling themselves to get there. It's doubtful that anybody will be shocked at that message. The biggest surprise is that Madonna keeps it all decidedly low key and not too flashy. It feels more grunge than glitz, more ragged than polished. Is this really Madonna's taste and style, or was her ex-husband rubbing off on her? It's also surprisingly mild for a film with such an intriguing title. I suppose Slightly Naughty and Not So Smart sounds far less interesting than Filth and Wisdom.
Guilty of not committing enough sins; this film needs to be a whole lot
filthier and wiser to get more than a passing nod.
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