Sticky & Sweet With ‘Stache

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:09

    LOOKING AT EUGENE HUTZ’S handlebar mustache and vulpine features, you’d expect him to say something like, “In my country, we have a saying,” or maybe even “Yekshemesh! My name-a Eugene!” As with Sacha Baron Cohen’s now instantly recognizable Kazhak reporter Borat, Hutz, the lead singer of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, makes schtick out of cultural stereotypes. The key difference between the two is that Hutz earnestly believes in the positive philosophical value of that schtick, peddling a theory of polymorphously hedonistic rebellion in Filth and Wisdom, Madonna’s directorial debut and most recent manifesto of coquettish provocation.

    As A.K., lead-singer of Gogol Bordello and occasional S&M dominator, Hutz’s cabaret lifestyle gives voice to Madonna’s continued charge to change identities like most people would clothes. He’s the fairy godmother to a trio of textbook faux-bos: Holly (Holly Weston), a ballet dancer that takes up stripping to pay her bills, Juliette (Vicky Mclure), a pill-popping pharmacist that cares about starving African kids and Prof. Flynn (Richard E. Grant, wearing a big shit-eating grin), a writer whose blindness depresses him. According to A.K., their unhappiness stems from their natural need to be what they’re not. This means that throughout the film, all three of A.K.’s patients, er, friends and lovers, do is pout about being confined by their chosen shitty situation in life and not becoming what they’d rather be. Holly can’t stand the idea that she’s not as good as Chloe (Clare Wilkie), apparently an adept tease/exotic dancer, at wiggling her ass; Juliette wants to help the rich instead of hiding from her parents, who want her to go to medical school; Prof. Flynn just wants to see. The cure for them is apparent— vamping it up, real do-gooding or vicarious vamping in Flynn’s case, for the sake of their self- rehabilitation.

    As their guru, A.K. imparts to them his pop worldview, insisting on the futility of adhering to either societal or personal standards of morality when it comes to their desired identity-defining actions/careers. After all, bad and good are two sides of the same coin. Toss in the Kabbalah and some Buddhism, and you’ve got a worldview in bite-size form. What you don’t have is a thoughtful or particularly entertaining movie. In between some genuinely fun songs, Madonna and co-writer Dan Cadan treat the viewer to a cookie-cutter fairy tale plot and a series of sermons and sound bites from Hutz that sorely lack spontaneity and wit. More than anything, that want is more than likely thanks to the tactile nature of Hutz’s infectious personality. His cache of charm is wasted by the film’s overuse of his various different outfits and token gestures, like lighting a cigarette, tossing a coin or reciting in perfect deadpan semi-serious hokum about needing to eat lemons so you can appreciate sweetness. Stretched out over the course of an 84-minute film, these become the irritating flag-waving trademarks of a kooky sitcom character rendered harmless by his irritating familiarity.

    He’s not the imp thumbing his nose at the traditional wisdom dictating that being abused as a child made him who he is; he’s the

    guy that talks too much and spends hours in front of the mirror. In fact, he’s the Fonz. There’s just no way to properly translate A.K.’s bullying charm into a narrative, the kind that dares you to not buy his act or challenge his boisterous know-it-all machismo. What the ‘stache knows may win the characters over, but that kind of roguish posturing is best served either in a live performance or a music video.

    Both provide the perfect capsule format for Hutz’s cheesy but charming charisma. They also allow you to take his philosophizing with the fistfuls of salt that Filth and Wisdom needs and happily marginalize Madonna’s involvement in an otherwise tired vanity project—something that she normally excels at.

    -- Filth & Wisdom Directed by Madonna Running Time: 84 min. --