Madonna may be the queen of reinvention, but sometimes it's OK to leave well enough alone. Her 2008 directorial debut Filth and Wisdom arrived on DVD in the United States this week, but curiosity is the only factor that might motivate even the most diehard of fans to rent it -- that, or an affection for attempts at avant-garde film, no matter how messy.
The film is narrated by A.K. (Eugene Hutz), a Ukrainian immigrant who has a penchant for speaking to the camera, sitting in the bathtub (pants on) and offering trite little tidbits that usually start with "They have a saying in my country..." and end with -- you guessed it -- some variation on the paradox of attaining salvation by getting your hands dirty (Get it? Filth and Wisdom?). A.K. lives with beautiful roomies (ahem, "flat mates"), Juliette (Vicky McClure) and Holly (Holly Weston), in London, where they're all struggling to make their way. Juliette's a pharmacist who hopes to save children in Africa, while Holly's a ballerina -- at least, until A.K. goads her into becoming a stripper to pay the bills.
Criss-crossing the roommates' lives are a handful of wacky characters, including Juliette's lascivious, harried boss Sardeep (Inder Manocha), Holly's new stripper-bestie (Francesca Kingdon) who imparts her industry knowledge, and their blind neighbor Professor Flynn (Richard E. Grant), who sports weirdly fake gray tufts of hair and is prone to fondling his books in the dark. Plus, there's A.K.'s myriad clientele who pay him for S&M sessions that are more laughable than lustful. It's cool, though, because A.K.'s just playing horsey with leather-bound, grown men until he gets a record contract.
As a piece de resistance, Filth and Wisdom is more experimental play-time than impressive cinematic oeuvre. The writing sometimes hurts, impairing whatever quality acting that might have been. But the movie also showcases facets of the Material Girl that we all know and love, with several montages that are constructed like music videos and wink-wink nods to Madonna's various personae -- from her groundbreaking role-playing in "Like a Prayer" to her more recent turn as an adoptive mommy who digs Malawi. Eventually, even A.K. kind of grows on you, perhaps in part because he's a rock star in real life. Once he gets out of the bathtub and stops talking, we get some great frenetic footage of him and his acclaimed band, Gogol Bordello.
And let's not forget that Madonna, while a little misguided in this instance, isn't stupid. Filth and Wisdom, for all its play-acting and awkwardness, doesn't take itself so seriously that it misses out on fun to be had. In the movie's best scene, Madge borrows from recent pop culture to pay homage to herself, reminding us, again, how she got to be so wise -- unfortunate debuts and all.