10.24.2008

Confessions on a Movie Screen?

Madonna directs peculiar comedy 'Filth and Wisdom'

There's always a degree of danger in assuming that any artist's work
is taken directly from life experience or personal philosophies. But
FILTH AND WISDOM, Madonna's directorial debut, is full of lines of
dialogue that sound as if they could have been pulled out of interviews
she's given over the years -- and, after all, she did co-author the
screenplay (with Dan Cadan).

"The road to success is paved with humiliation," one character
muses. "The sooner you accept that, the easier the journey will get."

"The problem with having a cashbox in your body is that you always feel empty, even when it's full," another declares.

And then there's this harsh insight: "You show me a beautiful girl and I'll show you a man who's tired of (sleeping with) her."

Did someone mention the name Guy Ritchie?

A peculiar, sad-eyed, sour comedy, FILTH focuses on the mostly
miserable lives of three flat mates in London. Ukrainian native A.K.
(Eugene Hutz, the ruggedly charismatic lead singer of gypsy-punk band
Gogol Bordello) pays his share of the rent with the money he makes by
beating and berating his submissive clients in various bondage games.
Juliet (Vicky McLure) toils in a pharmacy, primarily so that she can
steal pills and collect donations to feed impoverished children in
Africa.

"She doesn't know she's starving, too," A.K. astutely observes.

Lastly, there's Holly, a ballerina who's constantly broke; so why not moonlight as an exotic dancer?

The movie's message is the same one that's been force-fed to us for
years in Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera videos: You discover
your true inner power only when you realize how low you can go. "If you
spend your life in the gutter, sooner or later you will be searching
for wisdom," A.K. tells us in one of several speeches in which he
directly addresses the audience.

Fact that may be, but it's also worth considering that many people
who sink into "the gutter" never get back out again to search for
wisdom or anything else. And while it might be fun to put on a skimpy
outfit and pretend to be a stripper for Halloween of for a photo shoot,
it's probably less of a riot if you have to do it for a living, day in
and day out.

As a director, Madonna has a good eye for talent and she
concentrates on Hutz as much as possible. He's a natural performer (as
you may have noticed in director Liev Schreiber's underrated screen
adaptation of EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED) and a closing concert scene
demonstrates that he definitely knows how to get a party started. The
other performances range from passable to cardboard.

Madonna's script is more problematic. Although FILTH tries to be
lighthearted about A.K. and Holly's unsavory adventures, the movie
leaves a distinctly bitter aftertaste. A DJ snickers at Holly's clumsy
audition to become a pole dancer; the club manager practically slobbers
all over her. Holly is reduced to tears by this kind of treatment, but
she eventually puts her emotions on ice, slips into a schoolgirl outfit
and sashays through a club to the beat of "Hit Me Baby One More Time."
Although the scene is staged as if this represents some sort of triumph
for her, it's a lot more distressing than it is delightful.

Madonna also pokes fun at Juliet's outwardly stable boss (Inder
Manocha) who secretly lusts after her, and a property developer (Elliot
Levey) who spends his afternoons fooling around with A.K. and his
ladies. The businessman also has a suspicious wife (Hannah Walters),
which leads to some stiffly played sneaking-around-and-spying sequences.

Off on the sidelines, taking in as much of this as he can stand, is
Professor Flynn (Richard E. Grant), a blind poet who lives in the same
building as the troubled trio. They provide the promised filth in the
title; he dispenses what Madonna and Cadan classify as wisdom,
including that insight about humiliation.

Perhaps Flynn is Madonna's stand-in for herself, someone who is
experienced enough to advise young followers, even though he/she is
still hungry for spiritual guidance. The film could represent a
cinematic mea culpa, a true confession from a woman who roared down
that road to success and found the riches at the end of it, but now
wonders if the bumpy journey was worth the rewards.

Maybe FILTH AND WISDOM has no more connection to Madonna's vision of
the world than "Lucky Star" or "Four Minutes" or BODY OF EVIDENCE or
DICK TRACY. But it certainly doesn't seem that way.



FILTH AND WISDOM is now playing in select cities. It's also available on the IFC In Theatres cable channel.