By Ray Bennett
BERLIN — The message in pop star Madonna’s first outing as feature film director, “Filth and Wisdom,” is that all of us can find peace of mind and happiness if we just get in touch with our inner slut.
Ragged, uneven, and potholed with some dire dialogue and performances, the film’s cockeyed optimism and likeable leads conspire to bring a smile by the time it’s done. Barely feature length at 81 minutes, it will likely appeal to Madonna’s fans for its echoes of various threads of her own life story and the grunge style of “Desperately Seeking Susan.” To many, however, it will remain an oddity.
Focusing on three mismatched London flat-mates who accept dire jobs while waiting for their dreams to come true, the picture is a curious mix of TV sitcom, madcap raunchiness and rowdy gypsy music.
The male of the trio, a heavily accented Ukrainian would-be pop singer named A.K. (Eugene Hutz), sets the mood speaking directly to the camera and espousing the general theme that the path to enlightenment is via the gutter.
A.K. spends a lot of time in the bathtub, dressed or not, water or not, drinking brandy, smoking and pondering life’s vicissitudes. He earns ready money by getting into various costumes and beating up paying customers who get their jollies that way. He also runs errands for a blind poet (Richard E. Grant) who lives downstairs.
A.K. has a crush on flat-mate Holly (Holly Weston), a beautiful ballerina who, being flat broke, resorts to stripping and pole-dancing at a local club, while equally lovely Juliette (Vicky Mclure) is putting in time at a drugstore while dreaming of going to Africa to help the starving children there.
There are scenes involving A.K.’s clientele, Holly’s fellow strippers and Juliette’s lustful pharmacist boss and occasionally the two young women join in A.K.’s paid-for role-playing. Some sequences are jarring in their sudden shifts of tone and a few simply fall flat. The further down the cast, the less Madonna, who co-scripted, demonstrates a firm grip as director.
“Filth and Wisdom” is unexpectedly sentimental too, but the three leads are sufficiently engaging that while chaotic and more than a bit silly, the film in the end conjures up a surprising amount of goodwill.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival; Cast: Eugene Hutz; Holly Weston; Vicky Mclure; Richard E. Grant; Inder Manocha; Elliot Levey; Clare Wilkie; Stephen Graham; Hannah Walters; Shobu Kapoor; Director: Madonna; Writers: Madonna, Dan Cadan; Producer: Nicola Doring; Executive producer: Madonna; Director of photography: Tim Maurice Jones; Production designer: Gideon Ponte; Costumes: B; Editor: Russell Icke; Production: Semtex Film; No MPAA rating; running time 81 mins.
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.