What’s with these music superstars who think that they can easily jump professions and make a decent movie? Doesn’t anyone remember Neil Young’s “Greendale” or Bob Dylan’s “Masked and Anonymous”? Now to accompany those twin atrocities we have Madonna’s “Filth and Wisdom.” Actually, she does her predecessors one better by directing her disaster as well as co-writing it. It is not a pretty sight (she must have learned most of what she knows from watching Jim Goddard on the set on “Shanghai Surprise”). Nor, given the script, is it something that (unlike some of her albums) you’d want to listen to.
What passes for a plot centers on three London roommates. The landlord is A.K. (Eugene Hutz), a voluble Ukrainian musician who pays the bills by running an S&M business; one of his clients is a sheepish husband (Eliot Levey) who plays naughty schoolboy to escape his shrewish wife (Hannah Walters). A.K.’s renters are Holly (Holly Weston), a young ballet diva learning to pole dance to make money, and Juliette (Vicky McLure), a clerk at a drug store who steals assorted pharmaceuticals, apparently in furtherance of her dream to help starving children in Africa. She’s oblivious to the fact that her Indian boss Sardeep (Inder Manocha) is in love with her, seeing her as a welcome contrast to his wife (Shobu Kapoor), who feels trapped by their kids. Hanging around the edge of things is Holly’s friend Flynn (Richard E. Grant), a blind, gay poet.
What’s all this about? Well, as A.K. tells us in monologues he delivers directly into the camera, it’s about the yin and yang of the universe: for there to be wisdom, there must be filth, for there to be good, there must be bad, and so on. This isn’t philosophically very profound, but it’s probably about as deep as its auteur can get. And she isn’t particularly deft at finding cinematic ways to express the message: besides those awful Hutz monologues, there are terrible dialogue sequences and the director’s apparently preferred mode—musical montages modeled on the music video model. It all ends in a sort of apotheosis as A.K. finally gets his chance to perform, a gig that makes everyone smile and for some reason sends Flynn into positive transports of joy and creativity.
Perhaps the cast could have done better work under more experienced guidance, but in this case they all come off very poorly. Hutz in particular should have been tamped down—his overweening exuberance is exhausting, especially in the oppressive close-ups—but the insanely grinning Manocha isn’t far behind, and Levey and Walters are nothing more than crude caricatures. The “most embarrassing” award, however, definitely goes to Grant, a real actor (and a good one at that), stuck reciting dreadful lines in an awful role (and a horrendous Harpo Marx hairdo). Little need be said of the picture’s subpar technical quality, save that since you can usually make out what’s going on the camerawork by Tim Maurice Jones is better than the material deserves.
It must be admitted, though, that “Filth and Wisdom” does succeed in demonstrating cinematically the yin-yang principle it wants to get across. After all, for there to be balance in the universe, good movies must alternate with bad ones. This is obviously one of the latter.