Monday, December 28, 2009


Filth And Wisdom
2008, Semtex Films
DVD and Blu Ray
4 out of 10

Filth and Wisdom marks Madonna's directorial debut. Yes, that Madonna. Yes, directing a motion picture. And yes, this movie turns out just about how you would imagine a motion picture directed by Madonna would turn out. If you already guessed that she uses one of her own songs in this movie (during a strip club scene, no less), then you are way ahead of this review.

I'm not quite sure if any movie has ever explored London's sleazy underbelly with this much whimsy and aplomb the way Filth And Wisdom has, but Madonna does so here with blinding gusto. Filth And Wisdom plays like it wants to be Love Actually, tying all of its plot threads together into a neat little bow, but replaces the cloying charm of that film instead with fashionable filth and popped bubblegum remnants.

Eugene Hutz (who essentially stole Everything Is Illuminated out from under Elijah Wood) plays A.K., a Ukrainian Gypsy who makes his money as a dominatrix, a cab driver and an errand boy for his downstairs neighbor, Hugh E. Grant. A.K. lives in a flat with two impossibly beautiful women; Holly (Holly Westen) a ballerina who, at A.K.'s advice becomes a stripper, and Juliette (Vicky McClure), a pharmacy assistant who is raising money for starving children in Africa while stealing prescription meds from her Indian boss, Sardeep (Inder Manocha).

Convoluted? Oh, Filth And Wisdom is just getting started. As it turns out, Sardeep pines for Juliette since he is in a seemingly loveless marriage with his shrill and overbearing wife (Shobu Kapoor) and their seven children. Then there is Benjamin Goldfarb (Elliott Levee), a client of A.K.'s, whose is also married to an equally shrill and ball-busting woman (Hannah Walters), a Londoner by way of John Waters' Baltimore. Grant's character is Professor Flynn, a once great poet who is now blind and defeated. And when he's not dispensing dog-eared Gypsy advice to his lowly friends ("Where I come from, we have a saying... " his chestnuts always begin), A.K. mugs-it-up on stage with Hutz's real-life band Gogol Bordello.

To her credit, Madonna casting Hutz in a starring showcase seemed like a very shrewd move. Hutz is an interesting and rich character unto himself, be it acting, singing or simply talking. But the problem with Filth And Wisdom is that we get too much of Hutz. His A.K. is the film's narrator, and we meet him face to face, as he and his handlebar mustache tell the audience how wonderful it is to be him, and how much better the world be better if we all lived lives full of carefree desperation, mild depravity and tacky tracksuits. Believe me, a little bit of Hutz normally goes a long way. This is overkill.

Madonna isn't a horrible first-time director. She's merely perfunctory; mediocre. There's no dynamic here, which is surprising coming from the Material Girl. For a celebrity like Madonna, who still takes bold and daring chances (at age 50, no less), Filth And Wisdom is pretty tame. A film that cavalierly shoves sexual domination, women in thong underwear gliding around stripper poles and sexy school girl outfits in our faces (but surprisingly no nudity), Filth And Wisdom comes off more gutless than tantalizing.

More vexing , however, are the long, labored musical montages. I counted four. Who knows? There could have been more, but I lost interest. These montages usually consist of Hutz sitting in his bathtub, smoking cigarettes and singing along to his own songs with the camera right there, in his face, just grazing his stubble. Inter-spliced with this are the meh goings-ons of the other characters that populate this film.

It's interesting that Hutz's band, Gogol Bordello, features into this film on three different occasions (the last being the finale), yet we never get to properly meet them, like, at all. In the trailer for Filth And Wisdom, we are led to believe that A.K. lives the life he does so that he can pursue his dream of being a rock star. That makes sense, since every other character in this film has a dream to chase after. In the actual movie, however, there is absolutely no mention of A.K. chasing his dream of rock stardom. Not even a hint. It seems more like his character just happened to show up to the venue as the band started playing, too drunk and cheerful to take the microphone away from him.

Now, I can't write this review without singling-out Richard E. Grant. I am not a fan of this actor's work. In this film, Grant does nothing with his character, a once famous poet who can't confront his sudden blindness and subsequent depression. He goes no where with this guy that isn't pat and contrived. Instead of exploring and mining every corner of this character's psyche, Grant plays it safe and nimble while devouring every scene he's in as if it were English cuisine with generous amounts of salt and pepper seasoned on top of it (witness the tossing-the-books-off-the-shelf tantrum scene for further proof).

It doesn't help that Grant is playing this character from underneath the most wildly ridiculous gray wig and gaudy elderly make-up since the James Dean film Giant. It's as if the make-up department wanted to bludgeon the audience over the head: "He's older, distinguished, professor-y... you know? Smart." To me, Hugh E. Grant always comes across a pompous, self-congratulatory and vain, and these traits seemingly bleed through whatever character he's playing on screen, silly wig or not.

That being said, Filth And Wisdom is not the worst movie I've seen all year (that honor belongs to Eden Log, and Eden Log alone). It is, though, one of the most mesmerizingly contrived and pointless films I've ever seen. Everything about this film feels hobbled-together and tacked-on (guess who falls in love with each other at the end, even though the film made no earlier in-roads for this to convincingly happen!) A movie that puts itself together as it unspools for the convenience of the story is not really a story at all. It's like knitting a sweater from another sweater. What was the point of all this, anyway?

Perhaps Madonna should have worked her way up to movie directing the way most budding Hollywood directors do these days: by directing music videos. I seem to remember her having some experience in that department. Right?

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