The most obvious thing one can say about Filth and Wisdom is that it's the directorial debut of Madonna. And the most surprising thing one can say about it is that, for all its narrative and aesthetic shortcomings, it's not half-bad. Certainly, Madonna tackles what she knows, which in this case is a collection of related stories linked by the overriding message that no profound knowledge can be attained without degradation first being experienced, a sentiment the Material Girl has been pushing in one form or another at least since 1992's Erotica and its infamous companion tome Sex. If embracing your inner skank is the path to enlightenment, then Madonna must now be the Dalai Lama. And yet despite the juvenile maxims spouted by Eugene Hutz - the lead singer of gypsy-punk outfit Gogol Bordello (which provides much of the soundtrack), here playing a variation of himself named A.K. - and the sometimes blandly functional cinematography by Tim Maurice-Jones, there's raggedy charm to this misshapen film, a genuine, enticing verve that helps overshadow the dull leadenness of Hutz-spouted platitudes like his title-explaining gem, "Without filth, there is no wisdom." Admittedly, Hutz's comments are infused with the same irony that characterizes the Ukrainian's band, and anyway, they're somewhat beside the point, since Filth and Wisdom's finest attribute is its scraggly, empathetic portrait of close-knit Londoners trying to make a go of things in haphazard, messy, always true-to-themselves ways. Hutz works at his music career while making money on the side as a male escort specializing in fetishes (at one point, he dresses in a top hat and red jacket while riding a client in a saddle and harness), though he's almost a peripheral figure in Madonna's story, which otherwise focuses on his two flatmates. Juliette (Vicky McClure) is a pharmacist whose Indian boss Sardeep (Inder Manocha) so pines for her that he sneaks smells of her coat when she leaves the room, a bit of surreptitious pleasure-seeking that's mirrored by her stealing prescription meds while Sardeep is busy getting chewed out over the phone by his wife. Juliette yearns to visit Africa to help AIDS-afflicted orphans, whereas her friend Francine (Francesca Kingdon), a ballerina by trade, merely yearns for cash, which leads her (on Hutz's perverted suggestion) to a strip club, where she's schooled in the trade by a friendly pole-dancer.
Madonna shoots her action, which also involves Hutz's tender relationship with blind author Professor Flynn (Richard E. Grant), with spirited looseness, her film infused with a spiky momentum that leaves no time for dawdling. Filth and Wisdom has an off-the-cuff vitality that makes one think Madonna didn't look back to see if mistakes were being made along the production's way, confident that any structural and/or philosophical messiness would, if nothing else, at least be honest, forthright messiness. The proceedings thus tipsily veer about, one moment sharply capturing the uncomfortable awkwardness of Francine's maiden stripper audition routine in front of a sleazy club owner, and the other generating smart-alecky humor out of Juliette and Sardeep bickering over their competing humanitarian aid canisters (hers for Africa, his for India) at the pharmacy's front desk. One would hardly claim to feel deeply about any of these characters or their situations, but there's nonetheless something pleasurably fast, cheap and ragamuffin about the story's go-for-broke method of turning on a dime, mixing Hutz's to-the-camera narration with comedic interludes, sobering drama, and a couple of Gogol Bordello performances that encapsulate, in their wild pandemonium, the film as a whole.
During Grant's scenes, which frequently involve him sitting around his library at twilight looking morose (or sniffing his books), Filth and Wisdom can be ponderous. And in part thanks to Madonna's deficiencies at crafting more than cursory, flippant storylines, its pretentiousness can be dulling. Yet Hutz's "In my country..." yarns have an endearing corniness that permeates the writer/director's tales of marginal people attempting to find happiness on the margins. A.K. and Francine prove that bodies are commodities, Juliette confirms that altruism can coexist with criminality, and everyone verifies Madonna's belief that there's no illumination without darkness, no understanding without first coming to grips with one's seedier side. Focusing on its somewhat trite thematic underpinnings, however, is to take the film more seriously than it really takes itself, its convictions ("If you want to be saved, you've got to go through hell") earnestly held but largely espoused and dramatized with light tongue-in-cheek playfulness - a combination of sincerity and frivolity that's energized, as well as reflective of its maker's musical oeuvre.