The Vera Hruba Ralston of her time, Madonna has persisted in making movies despite all evidence that this is one medium in which no one wants to see or hear her. Likely to join the star’s cinematic hall of ill fame that includes “Shanghai Surprise,” “Who’s That Girl” and “The Next Best Thing” is director-scenarist-spouse Guy Ritchie’s “Swept Away,” though the badmouthing is likely to overshadow what’s actually onscreen — a simple misfire rather than a world-class fiasco. This misguided attempt to remake Lina Wertmuller’s corrosive 1974 satire as a wistful romance is only unintentionally funny in the last reel, alternating between the painless and turgid until then. Anticipatory bad press has probably already killed pic’s theatrical prospects; some costs should be recouped in ancillary.
Wertmuller cemented her brief mid-’70s vogue as an international arthouse favorite with the shrill, manic “original,” on which she failed to acknowledge the obvious model, James Barrie’s oft-filmed “The Admirable Crichton” — or fellow Italian helmer Marco Ferreri’s “Liza,” a suspiciously similar Deneuve-Mastroianni vehicle released just two years before. Wertmuller’s “Swept Away…” featured helmer’s recurrent stars Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato as a yacht’s macho deck hand and stereotypical “rich bitch” whose power roles are reversed when they’re lost at sea — landing on a deserted island where his survival skills trump her haughtiness. Humiliated, throttled and starved into subservience, she eventually finds happiness as a well-tamed shrew. Current pic has the theoretical benefit of Madonna’s various public/private images as satirical fodder — “rich,” “bitch,” “haughty” and even sexual masochist being among those many she’s toyed with or been accused of. She’s even sent herself up in Ritchie’s hands before, via last year’s well-received internet short “Star.”
But this “Swept Away” has too little interest in class-divided social satire; ditto its rather humorless headline performance. Where Melato was a screeching cartoon of bratty privilege, enormously wealthy Amber (Madonna), wife to biz tycoon Anthony (Bruce Greenwood), is just sullen, clenched and joyless. Her criticisms fall mostly on hapless Giuseppe (Adriano Giannini) during a Greece-to-Italy private boating vacation with two other couples (Jeanne Tripplehorn and David Thornton, Michael Beattie and Elizabeth Banks). Giuseppe loathes the “boss lady,” of course. But he’s being paid to grin and bear all arrogant abuse.
When Amber demands her own expedition to local caves, however, her complaints cannot repair the subsequent faulty dinghy engine — or attract rescuers or prevent a storm from washing them onto a white-sandy-beached isle. Tantrums soon fade into tummy growls; fed up, Giuseppe demands he be called “master” and that she serve him if she wants to be fed.
Ritchie has boasted that his screenplay shades the heroine’s transition from harpie to helpmate. But that’s not how it plays: While Wertmuller’s characters worked on their own terms as broad archetypes, here we’re meant to feel “real” emotional development as Amber (in apparent reaction to Giuseppe’s threat, then refusal, to rape her) suddenly grows moist-eyed with amour. Several defiantly blissful love-in-paradise montages follow, some set to the sensitive minimalist strains of Estonian composer Arvo Part.
Having turned from dour, half-hearted comedy on ship to unconvincing but picturesque romantic idyll, the movie truly pratfalls in its final stretch, prolonged far beyond story’s prior incarnations. Having begged Giuseppe not to flag down rescuers, Amber is delivered back to her husband. Yet she’s still willing to leave wealth and status behind for true love; only the watchful spouse’s intervention keeps them apart. Frantic but too late, hero rushes toward tearful heroine’s helicopter in a climactic slow-mo shot so corny it had even pushover preview viewers howling.
Eschewing the hyperventilative style of his Brit gangster pics (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch”), Ritchie does an OK job here without ever really grasping material’s possibilities. Characteristically, his best sequence is the most vigorously physical one, as leads chase, slap and scuffle with one another on the beach early on. Most glaring, least successful attempt to break things up is a musical fantasy (Giuseppe imagines a glam Amber lip-synching to Della Reese on “Come On-A My House” with full backing orchestra) too music-vid-like to seem like anything but a gratuitous bow to Madonna the Icon. Given a softer look than in some of her big-screen efforts (though mercifully sans “Next Best Thing’s” extreme soft-focus), Madonna looks good here — albeit aerobicized to sinewy excess. Acting-wise, she’s been worse, yet the star charisma easily exuded in other formats still eludes her as a dramatic thesp. Adriano Giannini, inheriting his dad’s role in a first English-language turn after just two prior Italo outings, proves likeable and wildly photogenic. Tripplehorn — briefly suggesting directions pic might well have explored further — makes support cast’s only notable impression as an acid-tongued lush.
D.p. Alex Barber’s location shooting in Malta and Sardinia is attractive enough, though lacking the full-on picture-postcard sumptuousness that helped make such past island fantasias as “The Blue Lagoon” into guilty pleasures. Despite beach setting, nudity is fleeting. Other design and tech aspects are polished.