Film Reviews

La Isla Bonita

"If the public's not interested, they don't have to buy!" sneers aging spoiled brat Amber (Madonna) to her uber-wealthy, idiotic friends in Swept Away -- and for a few minutes, it's tempting to use the line against both her and this seemingly noxious vanity project. Advance buzz for this remake (of Lina Wertmuller's marvelous 1974 romance Swept Away . . . by an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August) has been unkind, and doubtless some critics are digging through their dusty notebooks to find recyclable rips on Shanghai Surprise, but Madonna -- with a strong assist from her director-husband Guy Ritchie -- wins out. Trapped on a deserted Greek island with her much-abused servant Giuseppe (Adriano Giannini), the lucky star from Michigan with the intractable transatlantic accent proves, as far as cinema goes, that she's no longer an immaterial girl.

The story, of course, is about as simple as you can get, and you might even mistake it for Robert Zemeckis' equally pleasing Cast Away -- if Madonna had more pronounced whiskers and Giannini were a loyal volleyball. Basically, bored, wretched Amber and her staid, ultraconservative husband Tony (Bruce Greenwood) take a Mediterranean cruise with two other couples, Michael and Marina (David Thornton and Jeanne Tripplehorn, the latter looking comfortably unashamed of this particular water world) and Todd and Debi (Michael Beattie and Elizabeth Banks, the latter looking a bit too comfortable playing "stupid"). For half an hour, hyper-capitalist Amber basically spews her groundless ideologies and insults the fiery, communist Giuseppe (whom she calls "Pee-Pee") at every opportunity, until the salty sailor ("conceived on the crest of a wave and born in the belly of a boat," he boasts of himself) is fully primed to gut her with a paring knife.

Naturally, the two are soon trapped together on a dinghy with a wrecked motor. They squabble, they fight, they sleep, they drift, they fax Hollywood their concepts for Blue Lagoon III: The Bitch Is Back (no, not really), and they prepare -- as do we -- for Act Two. Once they find their comfy desert island, they fight a whole bunch more, smack each other in the chest with octopi, and trudge pensively through pretty (if slightly vacant) montages of lush scenery to the incongruous twangs of Mazzy Star (it's a typically cool soundtrack for Ritchie, including Goldfrapp and Louis Jordan's wonderful recording of "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens"). They also run around in revealing clothing -- unlike, say, Farrah Fawcett, Madonna has the good sense to bare her Pilates-taut flesh before she's AARP-eligible -- and they play rough little games of master and servant. If this weren't Lady Ciccone, audiences would just dig the project as the choice little Euro art film du jour.

But it is Madonna, and she and Ritchie have spent an obvious holiday abroad treading upon the sacred ground of '70s cineastes, so there's risk at hand. Wisely, they have cast Adriano Giannini -- a cameraman for 10 years succeeding splendidly in his first English-speaking role -- to fill his actor father's shorts from the original. (Hilariously, Amber dismisses the Greek as potentially attractive because he's "black" -- somewhere Seal and Dennis Rodman are cracking up on the floor.) Since there's little hope of replicating the saucy Pet of the Month groove of Mariangela Melato -- woe for a bygone magic -- Madonna sidesteps the whole problem. The chameleonic former imitator of Marilyn Monroe now looks remarkably like a 40-ish Bette Davis, and rather than selling mere sex, she's got angst on the block. The performance is faltering but noble, especially when she exclaims miserably to Giuseppe, "You don't have to compete with 18-year-olds!" (Or, we might add, with Britney in Crossroads.)

Since Ritchie has made his name with "guy" films about London gangsters shooting each other for having incomprehensibly fick accents (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch), he's stretching here, but it works. He sneaks a firearm into the proceedings -- a flare gun in a throwaway moment -- but mainly he strives to launch some emotional fireworks, be they giddy (a lovely fantasy cabaret number) or grim (the sown seeds of love and their bitter harvest). The film lacks the original's political aggression, dilutes the ending and too often tries to replace Melato's rudeness ("Peasant, rube, ignorant swine!") with Madonna's crudity ("I'd rather fuck a pig than kiss you!"), but the tone is well-sustained. Fans of the more ridiculous Greek romance Shirley Valentine will dig it, as will the eight or nine people who saw Demi Moore's similarly themed vanity project, Passion of Mind -- but it's better than both, with bouzoukis to boot.

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Gregory Weinkauf
Contact: Gregory Weinkauf