Pop go the dialectics in “Filth and Wisdom,” a tale of bumping and grinding your way to happiness from the hardest-working hard body in show business, that precision sex-and-beat machine turned first-time movie director known as Madonna. Set in London, the loosely threaded 84-minute story written by the Big M and Dan Cadan (a former crew member for her soon-to-be ex, Guy Ritchie) involves three roomies who are peddling body and soul in order to follow their different dreams, all of which should sound familiar to the Madonna faithful: music, dance and … saving impoverished African children.
Though she might be in an autobiographical mood, Madonna never appears on camera (two of her songs get a workout), letting the low-profile cast go through the motions and emotions for her. First and foremost is A. K. (Eugene Hutz, of the self-styled Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello), a Ukrainian musician who earns his keep British style by punishing naughty (adult) boys and dressing up in women’s clothing. A charismatic string bean adorned with gold hoop earrings and a kitten-sized mustache, A. K. shares a flat with Holly (Holly Weston), a ballerina with no discernable personality, and Juliette (Vicky McClure), a pharmacist’s aide whose obsession with African children leads to the worst line (and idea) in a movie this year: “She don’t know she’s starving too,” explains A. K.
She’s not really, though you might fervently wish that she were if not for the playful Mr. Hutz, who, whether loping through London or ogling the camera, lightens this otherwise heavy endeavor. Seriousness per se isn’t the problem (never is); the problem is the air of self-consciousness about being serious (or being taken as such), a tendency that has plagued Madonna’s own acting ever since her breezy 1985 breakout in “Desperately Seeking Susan.” That self-consciousness weighs on “Filth and Wisdom,” creating moments that are as cringe-inducing — Richard E. Grant as a professionally sensitive blind poet pulling books off his shelves in a rage — as the ill-advised director’s statement in which she name-drops Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti.
Well, better Visconti than most. “Filth and Wisdom” is a ridiculously easy target, but it also creaks and strains with more ambition than most mainstream throwaways that just recycle the usual guns and poses. Not that Madonna has gone in for originality, which isn’t really her thing: rather, instead of repurposing a genre, she has riffled through the art-house catalog for inspiration, as evidenced by the film’s intentionally grubby visual texture, jumpy editing, direct-address commentary, freeze frames and other tricks. Although the somewhat rough visual style doesn’t feel especially organic or natural for a director who has built a slick international brand with mind-blowing calculation, it does keep you interested from scene to scene, which is a more generous compliment than it might seem.
As to that story: A. K. pines for Holly, who remains oblivious until she learns to love herself or something by becoming a pole dancer at a men’s club. Juliette learns something else, though I’m not sure what, partly by ducking and then embracing her infatuated boss, Sardeep (Inder Manocha), an Indian immigrant with a noisy brood and a jealous wife (Shobu Kapoor). Madonna spices up these human ingredients and others with light bondage and grave affirmations (there’s even some marital advice), and while her movie meanders hither and yon, it all works out because life is a giant virgin-whore paradox and filth leads to wisdom and wisdom leads to filth and Gogol Bordello leads to a merry blowout with horn blasts and yelps.