Variety, 2/14/08

Claiming the films of Godard, Visconti, Pasolini and Fellini as her inspiration, Madonna hopes to "one day make something that comes close to their genius," according to the press notes for "Filth and Wisdom." On the evidence of this, her directorial debut, that day is a long way off. Ineptly written and helmed story of three Londoners, although quite bad, does have a few redeeming features. Madonna's name will ensure some kind of distribution, but her already abundant riches won't get any filthier off this.

Story revolves around three flatmates living in London. Ukrainian-born aspiring musician A.K. (Eugene Hutz), haunted by memories of an abusive father, now dominates and humiliates pervs for pay. Ballet dancer Holly (Holly Weston), for whom A.K. carries a weighty torch, tries her hand at pole dancing to raise extra cash at A.K.'s suggestion. Finally, pharmacy assistant Juliette (Vicky McLure) dreams of going to Africa to help starving children and thus escape some poorly explicated family strife.

Desultory plot is apparently crafted to illustrate A.K.'s to-camera and voiceover musings that "filth and wisdom are two sides of the same coin." In other words, one needs to wallow in the former to obtain the latter. Some auds may construe a Kabbalistic insight in this, although pic's fortune-cookie philosophy seems more akin to that of Madonna during her "Erotica" album and "Sex" book era, which extolled the supposedly liberating aspects of exhibitionism and kinkiness-as-cool. For instance, Holly frets far more about whether she'll ever master the art of pole dancing than whether the job itself is inherently humiliating and embedded in a sleazy industry that treats women like dirt.

Meanwhile, A.K.'s S&M sessions are played, perhaps more forgivably, strictly for laughs, and are even seen to rescue the failing marriage of one client (Elliot Levey).

Script credited to Madonna and Dan Cadan (whose credits list work as a runner and then as an EPK helmer for films made by Madonna's husband, Guy Ritchie) is poorly structured and cheese-ripe with clunky dialogue. Still, the occasional not-half-bad line of dialogue rouses hopes that pic might improve by the end (A.K. opines early on that "the problem with having a cash box in your body is that you always feel empty even when it's full"). Alas, pic only goes downhill after that.

Having contributed to arguably the worst films of some other big-name helmers (i.e. Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy," John Schlesinger's "The Next Best Thing" and Abel Ferrara's "Dangerous Game"), Madonna seems to have learned little about directing from her experiences in filmmaking. Her stylistic approach seems most akin to that of late-'80s/early-'90s pop videos, wherein story is often revealed without dialogue in music-backed montages, the likes of which abound here. It's as if she's taken her video for "Papa Don't Preach" as her main dramaturgical template.

On the plus side, however, the many tunes featured here by gypsy-punk beat combo Gogol Bordello, for whom lead actor Hutz (shown at right) is the frontman, are cracking little numbers. Hutz himself reps another plus, chock-full of rock-star charisma and the only man in living memory besides Daniel Day-Lewis in "Gangs of New York" who can make a handlebar moustache sexy. Co-stars Weston and McLure are skilled enough to muddle through despite helmer's manifest lack of skill, evinced by the caricatured perfs from the rest of the cast, including Richard E. Grant in an admittedly awful role as a "tragic" blind gay man.

Graceless editing further mars the tech package as a whole, while needlessly jiggly handheld lensing contributes to the pic's generally cheap look.

A Semtex Films production, in association with HSI London. (International sales: Semtex Films, London.) Produced by Nicola Doring. Executive producer, Madonna. Directed by Madonna. Screenplay, Madonna, Dan Cadan.


A.K. - Eugene Hutz
Holly - Holly Weston
Juliette - Vicky McLure
Professor Flynn - Richard E. Grant
Sardeep - Inder Manocha
Business Man - Elliot Levey
Francine - Francesca Kingdon
Chloe - Clare Wilkie
Harry Beechman - Stephen Graham
Sardeep's Wife - Shobu Kapoor
A.K.'s Father - Olegar Fedorov