Filth and Wisdom (IFC Films, NR)

film_filth_sm.jpgIf this were the first film of a 17-year-old who got a camcorder for his birthday and proceeded to write, direct and produce a film using his friends as cast and crew, it could be called a promising first effort.

 

 

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Filth and Wisdom, Madonna’s directorial debut, is not entirely without merit. There’s some good music in it, and some of the smaller roles are well played. And if it were the first film of a 17-year-old who got a camcorder for his birthday and proceeded to write, direct and produce a film using his friends as cast and crew, it could be called a promising first effort.

But expectations are higher for someone who’s acted in 20-plus films (albeit none too well, with about three exceptions) and has been a central figure in global pop culture since the 1980s. It’s not as if Madonna couldn’t afford to hire competent professionals to help out with those vital little details like writing a script worth filming and then directing the actors so they present a coherent story with characters we can actually care about. But she didn’t, and the result is a film which is one long ego trip purporting to impart wisdom while attempting to shock the audience by offering titillation (sadomasochism for hire, pole dancing) which might have raised an eyebrow 20 years ago.

The story centers around three none-too-successful London roommates trying to find their way in the world. A.K. (Eugene Hutz) dreams of making it big as a musician but supports himself with S&M gigs. He also carries a torch for Holly (Holly Weston), a would-be ballet dancer who works as a pole dancer. Juliette (Vicky McLure) rejects medical school in favor of employment as a pharmacist’s assistant while pining after a humanitarian career saving children in Africa (and pocketing drugs from the pharmacy in the meantime).

A.K. is the film’s spokesman, delivering homespun philosophy in accented English. Here’s a sample: "Filth and wisdom are two sides of the same coin. And knowing which side is facing up will lead to your salvation." If you find that profound, Filth and Wisdom might be just the picture for you. All others save your cash and check for his band instead, because the music by Gogol Bordello (a Gypsy punk band headed by Hutz) is the best thing about this film.

In fairness, there are some good minor characters, including Ade as the club DJ and Francesca Kingdon as Francine, the pole dancer assigned to teach Holly the ropes. But they are sadly outnumbered by embarrassing roles loaded up with unexplored detail: chief offenders include the racist and lecherous pharmacist Sardeep, played by Inder Manocha, and Richard E. Grant as Professor Flynn, the blind downstairs neighbor.

You could probably write several new scripts just by developing some of the subplots hinted at, then dropped, in this film. For instance, what is the family conflict which motivates Juliette to cast aside the obvious path to a comfortable life? Is it the same thing which causes her sister to drop school and head out to travel the world on Mom’s nickel in order to "find herself" (a cliché which outwore its welcome back in the 1970s)? What’s the backstory on Sardeep’s tumultuous household? Was it simply blindness that caused Professor Flynn to resign from life, and is he planning to veg out for the rest of (probably considerable) remaining years?

Then there are the logical inconsistencies. Can someone else really get you accepted into a humanitarian aid organization (with an overseas posting) without your knowledge? Isn’t Holly getting a bit old to think she’ll ever make it as a ballet dancer? And does she really make that much every night in tips, or was Francine using that as an excuse to give her money, for reasons equally unexplored?

Never mind, it’s not worth worrying about. And young directors around the world can thank Madonna for demonstrating once again that money and ego are no substitute for either talent or professional competence. | Sarah Boslaugh

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