In American Psycho, Christian Bale plays a man so divorced from his better angels that he's essentially a robot or a malevolent space alien masquerading as a flesh-and-blood human being. It isn't coincidental that his performance doubles as a gonzo parody of Tom Cruise, but with the actor's irrepressible can-do spirit employed to the darkest possible ends.
Icons like Tom Cruise and Madonna are so calculated and scripted in their every move that, like Bale in Psycho, they often come off like career-minded androids pretending to be human. I suspect that when the Madonna android has fulfilled her use for the evening, her handlers shut her down, then restart her the next morning for Pilates class or a business meeting. Even when the Madonna android does something seemingly spontaneous or rebellious, like trying to shock David Letterman by talking about pot and dropping the F-bomb indiscriminately, it feels like the programmers behind her simply downloaded a provocation upgrade into her mainframe and waited for revenue-generating controversy to ensue.
Then there's Madonna's infamous lip-lock with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the MTV Movie Awards a few years back. It now is abundantly apparent that Madonna wasn't kissing her much younger rivals so much as she was draining them of their life essence and career mojo. Has anything good happened to Spears since Madonna gave her the kiss of professional death? As I argued in my Inventory piece on Great Moments in The Co-Option Of Hip-Hop, Madonna is pop culture's preeminent vampire, a ghoulish parasite who must feast on the lifeblood of the young and vital to postpone the seemingly inevitable descent into irrelevancy.
Just ask Guy Ritchie. Before he met Madonna, he was the King of the Blokes, the U.K.'s answer to Quentin Tarantino, and a man who will probably never have to buy himself a pint at a pub as long as he lives. Then Madonna sank her fangs into Ritchie, drained him of his seed, and his career instantly disintegrated. The film that catapulted Ritchie to infamy was Swept Away, a remake of Lina Wertmuller's 1974's Italian film of the same name reconfigured as a vehicle for Madonna, who after years of successfully fighting off the aging process through voodoo, black magic, and hardware upgrades began aging dramatically around the time it was filmed. She devolved from an ageless and preening Dorian Gray to a creepily cat-like picture of Dorian Gray seemingly overnight. Madonna seemingly went to bed a sexed-up Snow White and woke up the Evil Stepmother.
Madonna's videos and photo shoots helped transform multiple generations of boys into men, so there's something a little perverse, even sadistic, about Ritchie casting his wife as an insecure middle-aged woman distraught at the prospect of having to compete with 18-year-olds with perfect skin and perky bosoms. If Swept Away is designed as a cinematic love letter to Madonna from her adoring husband, it's written in blood and laced with arsenic. The film plays into the misogynistic revenge fantasies of every blue collar Joe who ever thought that Madonna dame seemed pretty uppity and high-falutin' with her fake British accent and fancy pants spiritual concerns.
Madonna here plays a brittle, hateful wife of a pharmaceuticals giant who treats the world seething disdain. On a pleasure trip to abandoned islands with a battery of similarly useless high-society types, Madonna rains contempt on the ship's harried staff, especially a rough-hewn Italian fisherman played by Adriano Giannini, whom she insists on calling "Guido" or "Pee Pee" instead of the preferred "Pepe." As a portrait of inter-class warfare, Swept Away is about as subtle and nuanced as a cave painting. These insufferable early scenes explore the vast dimensions of Madonna's range. Most of the time she's shrill and obnoxious, but sometimes she switches things up a little by being hateful and abusive. Sometimes she whines. Sometimes she screams. Sometimes she shrieks. At still other points, she screeches her complaints at eardrum-threatening volume.
It's a sustained hissy fit of a performance that eventually melts into good when hate is replaced unconvincingly by what I believe you humans call "love." These early scenes prime audiences for crowd-pleasing Schadenfreude once the roles are reversed and brawn triumphs over money. Ritchie goes out of his way to establish Madonna's character as an evil harridan as a way of raising the stakes for her eventual comeuppance. In the process, Ritchie shamelessly stokes the public's sexism and resentment towards successful, wealthy women, a breed Madonna more or less embodies.
Sure enough, when Madonna and Giannini end up on an abandoned island together, all of her money and power is suddenly rendered useless, though Madonna's such a muscular, toned creature that she looks like she might be able to take Giannini in a fight, especially if she fought dirty. Yet when Giannini begins slapping, kicking, and generally bullying Madonna as revenge for her earlier mistreatment of him, it rings incredibly hollow. For Giannini is nearly as crude and unlikable a caricature of his class as the woman he pushes around and orders to call him Master.
Giannini and Madonna travel a shockingly, comically abbreviated arc from contempt and hostility to deep, meaningful love, skipping straight past infatuation and growing affection in the process. One minute they hate each other. Two or three minutes later, they're gazing adoringly into each other's eyes and professing undying love. Swept Away is so maddeningly elliptical in its storytelling that I initially wondered whether the scenes of the two leads trysting in the sands were a fantasy sequence.
In a seeming heartbeat, Swept Away morphs from a brittle, misanthropic social satire with creepy political, sexual, and class overtones to a dewy Harlequin romance about the star-crossed love between an earthy Italian hunk and a lusty, love-starved woman of wealth and privilege. It's a shift that'd be jarring under the best of circumstances, but it's downright hopeless given the complete lack of chemistry, sexual and otherwise, between Madonna and Giannini. For a film that's all about a repressed shrew giving in to her earthy desires, Swept Away is shockingly unsexy and not just because Madonna's character is so narcissistic and greedy I suspect her conception of sex involved looking at her bank account statements naked in front of a full-length mirror.
Like the strangely simpatico Bonfire Of The Vanities, Swept Away finds an eternal adolescent of a filmmaker trying, and failing, to make a grown-up social satire. The film's listless second half continually threatens to turn into an extended music video as Ritchie piles breathless montage sequences atop one another. A whiz at slam-bang action, kinetic visuals and smartass humor, Ritchie was clearly the wrong man to direct a character-based satire though for sheer, mind-boggling miscalculation, it'd be hard to top casting a celebrity android famously incapable of conveying authentic human emotions as a woman humanized by adversity.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure