The attribute most identified with Madonna is ambition, but when it comes to film, it has to be tenacity. Never able to translate her magnetic stage presence into a compelling onscreen persona (coming closest as the relentlessly driven Eva Peron in 1996’s Evita), and razzed mercilessly for her wooden performances, she continued to make movies with anyone who believed — including hubbies Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie — with little success and even less respect.
So Madonna chose not to appear in her directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom, but her larger-than-life aura pervades this indie nonetheless. The great reinvention artist has created a new kind of vanity project: an autobiographical story told through surrogates, three London flatmates who represent distinct personality traits, characteristics that might be at odds in someone who’s not so accustomed to shedding an old skin and slipping into a new one.
A ballet dancer who spends more time in class than on a stage, Holly (Holly Weston) finds work as a stripper until that elusive big break comes. Her best scenes are extended dance sequences, as she takes the muscle memory gleaned from years of poised and precise movement, and adjusts it to the ritualized pole-circling grind of stripping. (Considering Madonna’s well-known exhibitionism, there’s not even a nipple on display in this unrated but surprisingly tame movie.)
Obsessed with helping starving children in Africa, Juliette (Vicky McClure) has left her posh family to work at a pharmacy. A child of privilege with serious daddy issues, Juliette is eager to give herself over to suffering, and has been pilfering expensive prescription drugs from her love-struck Indian boss, hoping to one day use them to cure the ills of those whose troubles she has adopted as her own.
Weston and McClure come off as lightweight Factory girls compared to Eugene Hutz (Everything is Illuminated), the force of nature who makes Filth and Wisdom more than just Madonna’s home movie. The Ukrainian-born singer of Gogol Bordello, Hutz displays all the charisma and wry humor his director lacks.
His Andrly Krystiyan is a multitasker, self-promoter and altruistic narcissist, ruefully delivering Her Madjesty’s philosophical musings, offering ritualized domination by appointment only, and tending to a blind poet. She may have global influence, but Filth and Wisdom illuminates Madonna’s essential myopia. With cheeky defiance and amorphous optimism, Hutz brings her Frankenstein monster to life.
Opens Friday, Oct. 24 at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.