Inside Jobs

Category: RocknRolla Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: October 14, 2008 | Publication: The New York Times | Author: Anthony Lane
Publication/Article Link:http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2008/10/20/081020crci_cinema_lane

There have been countless occasions on which a husband and wife have acted together onscreen. A pair of mating movie directors, however, is altogether a more exotic find, and, as for both having a film released in the same month, it’s almost unheard of. “Wanda,” for instance, Barbara Loden’s impressive début behind the camera, came out in 1970, in a lull between two films directed by her husband, Elia Kazan. No such staggering of duties in the Ritchie household: American audiences will shortly be able to savor not only Guy Ritchie’s “RocknRolla” but also “Filth and Wisdom,” directed by Madonna, his better half.

I use the word “better” in the chivalric sense, pointing to the greater moral refinement of womankind. To imply that Mrs. Ritchie also has the edge on Mr. Ritchie in her skills as an auteur would, I feel, demand gallantry of a higher order. Madonna is, of course, an actress of wide repute; the nights on which I saw “Shanghai Surprise” and “Body of Evidence” could not be more memorable if they had been seared onto my flanks with a branding iron. She has even been a leading lady for her beloved, taking the central, or swimsuit, role in his 2002 masterwork, “Swept Away.” Like Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” this revolved around the loggerheads of two people stuck on a lonely island, although there, it must be said, the resemblance ends. Now Madonna, following her husband’s example, has made a movie for herself.

Both films are set in London, the city where the Ritchies live. The fact that, as represented in their works, it bears almost no relation to the place where most Londoners reside is, in itself, no cause for rebuke. Madonnaville is perhaps a touch more recognizable than Ritchietown, in that it contains a pharmacy, a restaurant, and other components of a normal existence. The pharmacy is run by Sardeep (Inder Manocha), a middle-aged Indian in love with his assistant, Juliette (Vicky McClure), who likes to steal drugs off the shelves. Her home is an apartment shared with a dancer, Holly (Holly Weston), who graduates from ballet class to strip joint. Their landlord, Andriy (Eugene Hutz), earns cash by providing fetishistic services with bridles and whips. Given that most of us were already tired of Madonna’s shock tactics in “Sex,” sixteen years ago, it is unlikely that we would be thrown, let alone aroused, by the erotic fripperies of her film, or by the camera’s sad ogling of Holly as she writhes around a pole. In case you find these disparate strands confusing, Eugene Hutz is on hand to lurch out of character and address the camera directly. Wild of voice and limb, he is the gangling Ukrainian front man of a band called Gogol Bordello, dispensers of so-called gypsy punk to the discerning few. This is his third film, believe it or not, and the question is not whether he can act—which he can’t—but whether he would please, for once, just sit still and shut up.

What vexes me most about “Filth and Wisdom” is the economics. Madonna has been a global star for decades. She has amassed a fortune, much of which presumably remains intact. She can’t have spent all of it on jodhpurs and conical bras. So why, when it came to launching herself as a film director, did she limit her budget to $365.23? Such, at any rate, is my estimate for the funding of “Filth and Wisdom.” If the actors were paid according to their talents, they cannot have cost more than forty bucks. In the case of Richard E. Grant, the one sizable name in the cast, his performance as a tweedy, sightless poet is so embarrassing that I trust he took no payment at all. The only major expense was the lighting: a toy flashlight, I would guess, placed carefully in the corner of each room and angled upward—hence the capering shadows that Andriy casts on his living-room walls. In technical terms, more professional productions than this are filmed and cut on iMovie, by ten-year-olds, a thousand times a day.

“RocknRolla,” by contrast, has competence on its side. Whole scenes go by in which one shot actually matches the next. In place of the bleak fuzz that veils half the setups in “Filth and Wisdom,” the images here are crisply defined, even if Ritchie has proved unable to shed the fondness for muted mud-tones that graced “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” Why, there are even proper actors! Giving reasonable performances! This film’s got everything, although purists might quibble that it lacks any sliver of plausibility or dramatic interest. It stars Gerard Butler—rugged, wry, and, ever since “300,” trembling on the verge of stardom, though I worry that he may never recover from the trauma of having stormed into battle wearing a Spartan diaper. He plays One Two, a gangster—small fry, unlike Lenny (Tom Wilkinson), a gangster of substance, although even he meets his match in Uri (Karel Roden), a Russian billionaire who is really, when you come down to it, a gangster. There may be other careers in Ritchietown, but we never see them. The plot, such as it is, entails men owing each other money. Sometimes, for a laugh, they steal it.

What links this film to “Filth and Wisdom” is that both are the products of what might be called the wannabe imagination—a desperate wish to dream yourself down from on high, from within the fortress of fame, and to scrape acquaintance with the rougher end of the culture. If “RocknRolla” clings to the company of ne’er-do-wells, it’s not because they bristle with the frustrations of society, as Warner Bros. gangsters did in the nineteen-thirties, but purely because Ritchie wants to borrow their cheeky charm—a virtue that, in reality, none of them possess.

Meanwhile, Madonna’s mess of a movie grabs at the rub and rancor of multiculturalism, which it proceeds to squash into a litter of clichés, or, more simply, insults. We get the hectoring Indian wife, besieged with children, followed by the hectoring Jewish wife, clad in curlers at breakfast and gold jewelry for the rest of the day, and married to a weak and masochistic property developer named Goldfarb (Elliot Levey). I may be missing something here, but, if you’re going to profess an interest in Jewish mysticism, as Madonna the Kabbalist has done, it may not be a terribly good idea to create a scene in which a Jewish man pays to be beaten by a Ukrainian and addressed as Rothschild. Why did Mr. Ritchie not warn Mrs. Ritchie about this, as they sat around in their lovely gangsterless home, comparing notes on filmmaking? Could it be that he feared a right old hectoring? We will never know.