'Filth and Wisdom': Absolute Beginner, By Kurt Loder

Madonna's latest reinvention.

Madonna makes her directorial debut with a three-hour movie that ... no, wait — it says 84 minutes here; surely a misprint. Anyway, Madonna makes her directorial debut with what seems like a very long movie about, well, filth and wisdom, I suppose. Or as narrator-star Eugene Hutz puts it, "Without filth, there can be no wisdom." As deep thoughts go, this seems too feeble to provoke much in the way of actual thought, let alone to hang a movie on, but let us, unlike the film, move right along.

The setting is London; the subject, three friends. Juliette (Vicky McClure) is determined to save disease-ravaged African children by stealing bottles of pills from the pharmacy in which she works and ... what: mailing them off to general delivery, Zimbabwe? Not clear. Holly (Holly Weston) is an underemployed ballerina who's persuaded to try stripping to pay the rent. (The pole-dancing scenes in which she features seem like an attempted comment on the objectification of women's bodies; but then the scenes themselves objectify women's bodies — although not nearly as much as pole-dancing aficionados might hope.)

And then there's A.K. (Hutz), a lushly-mustachioed layabout who pays his rent by conducting S&M sessions (heavy on the caning) in his ratty apartment and sitting in an empty bathtub dispensing gaseous aphorisms straight to the camera. ("He who licks a knife will soon cut his tongue." "If you want to reach the sky, f--- a duck and learn to fly.") Hutz, of course, is the leader of the gypsy-rock band Gogol Bordello, a group on which Madonna dotes, and which gets lots of exposure here. As a frontman, he's a rousing performer. As a constant presence in the movie, however, he is deeply, maddeningly tedious. After his seventh or eighth wearying epigram ("There is more to love than words — for instance, the back of a woman's neck"), you want to leap onto the screen and start caning him.

Why Madonna should want to pursue her love of movies beyond simply appearing in them and into the realm of directing (and producing) is a mystery. She's brought some friendly pros onboard to help out: cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones is a longtime associate of her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Guy Ritchie; and Dan Cadan, who's officially taking the fall for the script, is a onetime Ritchie assistant who has also worked on electronic press kits for two of his movies. But who should be credited for the awful lighting (the movie is lit like a lavatory), and the clichéd overhead shots of people morosely curled up on beds, and the puzzling decision, midway through the movie, to suddenly start styling Vicky McClure to look like Jean Seberg in Godard's "Breathless"? I'm afraid we know.

Also lamentable is Madonna's decision to call her production company Semtex Films. Semtex is a well-known plastic explosive, much favored by terrorists. For bombs.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "What Just Happened," "Max Payne" and "Moving Midway," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Filth and Wisdom."

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