Dir: Madonna. UK. 2008. 81 mins
Contrary to billing, there's not much filth and precious little wisdom in Madonna's directing debut. Even so, you have to applaud her for daring to get behind a camera, given that her career in front of it has been strewn with clunkers. While Filth And Wisdom may not quite inhabit the same Hall of Shame as Shanghai Surprise, Body of Evidence and (God save us) Swept Away, it's likely to be forgotten as quickly as most of them. The big surprise is that she's chosen to make her directing debut with a cheap and cheerful London ensemble comedy that's no better or worse than the average creaky low-budget Britflick.
Filth And Wisdom comes across less as a high-profile addition to Madonna's expanding portfolio of extra-curricular hyphenate activities - high-street fashion design, children's books et al - than as a good-humoured, averagely amateurish vanity project. While theatrical prospects are minimal, curiosity value will benefit DVD sales in territories where Madonna's cachet is still untarnished, and the film will play fests wherever she's willing to strut the red carpet.
A multi-stranded tale of contemporary London in a vaguely Mike Leigh-ish vein, the film is essentially a love letter to its star, Ukrainean 'gypsy punk' bsinger Eugene Hutz, whose boisterous band Gogol Bordello provide most of the soundtrack. Hutz plays Andriy Krystrian (or AK), a Ukrainean singer in London out to promote his band and making a living as a role-playing rent boy. No actual sex is involved, apparently: A.K.'s speciality is to dress up in oddball costumes - military officer, circus ringmaster, etc - and bark insults at eagerly cowering middle-aged men.
A.K. is also the film's to-camera narrator and resident philosopher, dispensing dubious folkloric pearls of wisdom - 'Only when you taste lemon do you understand what sugar is' - and relentlessly pushing the film's basic premise, to wit, that filth and wisdom are two sides of the same coin, duality is everywhere, and it's a rum old world.
Among the oddballs revolving around A.K. are two young women, Holly (Weston) and Juliette (McClure), platonic friends who occasionally help out with his S&M scenarios. Juliette is a tense, angry young woman who works for adoring, turbulently-married Indian chemist Sardeep (Manocha), while ballet dancer Holly is persuaded by A.K. to supplement her income through pole dancing - a craft she nervously acquires at the club owned by camply lecherous Harry Beechman (Graham). Also dispensing worldly wisdom is Professor Flynn (Grant, at his most richly hammy), an elderly, tweedy, gay, blind, embittered poet.
Creakily written by Madonna and Dan Cadan, the film is set in a London that isn't entirely unrecognisable, but lacks any sense of density or social observation. The film aspires to paint a brittle, celebratory picture of a multi-ethnic capital where everyone gets cheerfully by, but comes across as essentially duplicitous, claiming to satirise racial and social stereotypes while lazily perpetuating them. For example, while it's
Sardeep who keeps making callous racist remarks, the film thinks nothing of giving us a noisily bickering Indian family with a dubious grasp of English, a neurotic Jewish businessman (Elliot Levey) with a fat ballbreaking wife; and Grant's 'tragic' gay man who dispenses crisp witticisms in public but weeps in private.
Otherwise, the film feels like a virtual love letter to Hutz, whose force-of-nature charisma was used to good effect in Liev Schreiber's Everything Is Illuminated. Essentially playing himself, or at least his rock star persona, Hutz - now a real-life fashion icon of sorts - affects an zany thrift-store-style, but he milks the self-parodying borscht-punk routines shamelessly, leering, posing and generally coming across like a nightmare cross between Borat and Vincent Gallo.
Tim Maurice Jones's camera certainly has the hots for Hutz, but a little goes a long way - halfway to Kiev, in fact. The shtick should pay off for Gogol Bordello fans, who get a cheerfully abrasive blast of the band's live performance right at the end.
While playing on raunchiness, and the currently modish lap-dancing theme, the film's sexual content is primly saccharine, with an antiquated dash of seaside-postcard leeriness. The visual execution is strictly no-frills and a little cut-price in design. And Madonna simply can't direct actors: only Hutz seems at ease in front of the camera, and the jerky editing style suggests a lot of cut-and-pasting has been required to get a usable flow of performance. Still, there's one nice joke: at the pole-dancing club, Madonna's own Erotica is played, before unceremoniously being taken off in favour of a Britney Spears number. It could almost be construed as modesty.
00-44-207 437 3344
Director of photography
Tim Maurice Jones
Richard E. Grant