If it has succeeded in anything, Madonna’s directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom, certainly sets the tone for an extended cliché with its opening monologue. Our protagonist, A.K., played by Gogol Bordello’s mustachioed frontman Eugene Hütz, spews philosophic nonsense into the camera with obnoxious self-assurance. “When I die, I am going straight to heaven,” he says. Why? Not because he believed in God or lived a righteous life, but because he always told the truth. “There are two categories of people: people trying to be good and people trying to be bad,” he ponders, vaguely explaining the duality implied by the film’s title. “Filth will appear as an oasis in the desert.”
Audiences, unfortunately, will find few oases in these agonizing 81 minutes. The film focuses on a trio of impoverished, stereotypically bohemian roommates in London who somehow embody the struggle of filth and wisdom within us all. There’s Holly (Holly Weston), a classically trained ballet dancer who reluctantly pursues stripping when faced with dismal job prospects; Juliette (Vicky McClure), a pharmacy assistant who pockets — and presumably sells — pills while dreaming of helping starving children in Africa; and A.K., an aspiring rock star who spends half the film muttering platitudes in a bathtub and stays afloat financially by engaging in sadomasochistic scenarios with strange men. At the periphery, we find Professor Flynn (Stephen Graham), a once-popular poet driven mad by blindness, and Sardeep (Inder Manocha), Holly’s boss and an unhappy husband and father. With such undeveloped characters, there’s little more to tell. In the end, many of the players experience a profound and spontaneous transformation, often having little with either filth or wisdom.
The film aims to shock with its “filth,” but it even fails in this regard. A.K. dons a variety of guises — German soldier, schoolmaster, jockey — to indulge his clients’ wild fantasies, and we watch him whip men and force them to lick his boots, often with the help of his roommates. Yet the overwrought choreography of these scenes, paired with Hütz’s flat acting, implies parody, not grit. There’s nothing shocking about Holly’s stripping or Juliette’s thievery. Both women, strangely, seem completely unaffected by their choices. Madonna might have once signified a tenuous challenge to mainstream social mores, but Filth and Wisdom is simply too full of clichés to take seriously.
It’s ultimately Madonna’s failure to create sympathetic or engaging characters that makes Filth and Wisdom an utter waste of time. If people as tedious and unlikable as A.K. are allowed through the gates of heaven, good riddance to the afterlife.