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Filth and Wisdom

An Amateurish Stab at Sagacity

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Let it never be said that Madonna’s self-serving fascination with sex, which once stirred enough controversy to make even her most calculated exploits seem like bona fide events, has diminished with age. It’s just that we’re no longer shocked, and only mildly interested. Filth and Wisdom, her directorial debut, has arrived with more of a whimper than a bang, and the results are surprisingly shoddy, even by the standards expected of a first-time would-be auteur.

The movie centers on the stories of three London-based flatmates, none of them developed into more than a rough, unrevealing sketch of a character. Holly (Holly Weston) tires of her very proper life as a ballerina and puts her training to use at the local strip club, where a Bo Diddley look-alike blasts dated but familiar hits by the Material Girl and her onetime heir apparent, Britney Spears. Juliette (Vicky McClure, of This Is England) is a pill-popping pharmacist’s assistant who obsesses about starving African children, oblivious to her own indifference to nourishment.

Then there’s A.K., a hard-living Ukrainian musician and part-time fetishist-for-hire who acts as the film’s narrator, often addressing the camera with pearls of dubious wisdom. (“If you want to reach the sky, fuck a duck and try to fly.”) A.K. is played by Eugene Hütz, the boisterous lead singer of a Gypsy punk outfit called Gogol Bordello. Featured here in a series of musical interludes, the band’s boozy anthems soar with an agreeably anarchic spirit, proof that Gogol Bordello’s recent success on the New York club circuit is no fluke. As an actor, though, Hütz is energetic but emotionally impenetrable.

Madonna lets her camera linger on Holly’s suggestive gyrations and A.K.’s bizarre S&M fantasies, but for a movie that encourages us to embrace our inner freaks, inhibitions be damned, Filth and Wisdom is really pretty tame. There is much discussion of sex and plenty of lurid insinuations but few moments of actual gratification. This is turgid erotica, clumsily presented by a cast better suited to Troma-style camp than a film of any pretensions to seriousness.

Dan Cadan’s script offers its characters little in the way of resolution, concluding their aimless adventures on a semi-philosophical note. We’re all in this together, A.K. tell us. Why not have a little fun while we’re here? Fair enough, but taken as an argument for better living through hedonism, Filth and Wisdom is unconvincing. In the end, it begs the question posed by a pop sensation of a different era: Is that all there is?