La Isla Banal

What?! Madonna and Adriano Giannini in 'Swept Away'

What?! Madonna and Adriano Giannini in 'Swept Away'

The only movie I've ever walked out of is Swept Away, Lina Wertmüller's desert isle "love" story from 1975. Seeing it at a repertory theater in the early '80s, I struggled with the notion that a woman--even a rich bitch castaway--might be the better for a slap and a punch. And when Mariangela Melato's once proud diva began moaning sensually in the midst of an attempted rape, I grabbed my boyfriend and marched up the aisle. That's exactly the kind of stereotype we're fighting against! the fledgling feminist raged. And it was perpetrated by a woman!

If only I had stuck around for Wertmüller's last laugh. Well, it's more of a bitter chuckle, really, at the idea of true transformation--a fairly distant possibility, the film decides, whether one is tutored by hits or kisses. Of course, I probably would've been pissed about that attitude, too. I was chasing change just as Giancarlo Giannini's fisherman hounds Melato's rich girl: trying to grab and control it. But change, I've learned, submits to no agenda. It strokes with one hand and slugs with the other, and in that inconstancy it is constant.

Which is just a fancy way of saying that, if I could have, I would've walked out of Guy Ritchie's remake, too. Not because of the slap-happy male-female dynamics, which feel as dated as Bobby Riggs's 1973 challenge to women's tennis champion Billie Jean King. (Can you imagine that skinny weasel facing Serena Williams?) No, this time the offense is aesthetic. A tone that slips suddenly from silly to sodden. Not one but two static montages. A rewritten finale cribbed from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A director who seems to feel most comfortable below decks with the galley hands. And a star whose acting chops would look amateurish in a Corky St. Clair production.

It's been said before, and I'll say it until she quits: As an actor, Madonna makes great music videos. (Ritchie shrewdly inserts one in the middle of Swept Away as a sexual fantasy. Unfortunately, Madonna is lip-synching to Della Reese on "Come On-a My House," a vision so unsettling that I only got the intended pun a minute ago.) As a film character, the singer looks awkward and reads flat: She's at once too vehement and not enough. Her Amber--who, as written, is comically, ridiculously vehement--runs on empty for all of Madonna's loud sneers and eye-rolls and huffs. She can't fill her up.

Which is odd, because the character seems written for her. I can imagine Ritchie and Madonna on the king-size, half-watching an old movie about wealthy folks floating in the Mediterranean, laughing as a spoiled blonde taunts the servants with preposterous demands. ("Wait, hunny--is this Truth or Dare?") Then, after the blonde and the steward/fisherman are shipwrecked, Giannini utters the fateful line: "How many lovers have you had--with that Madonna look of yours?" Ritchie hoots at "the wife," who smiles archly at him. Bingo. Perhaps the pair found some resonance, too, in the class disparity between the lovers, given Madonna Inc.'s annual $40 million plus. Perhaps they enjoyed envisioning Madonna--the celebrity persona, that is--being kicked across the sand.

Certainly their script alterations (which are surprisingly few) seem to be responding to the star's image as much as anything. Her taut pecs and biceps are more than a match for those of Adriano Giannini (yes, he's the son of Giancarlo), so Ritchie must stage Giuseppe's initial slaps for laughs. "You can't hit a woman, you fucking idiot!" yells a more-stunned-than-hurt Amber. (The men around me kept giggling as the abuse escalated, which felt a little odd.) When Amber finally hits back, it's a profound relief on the level of mere credibility.

Amber's quick submission afterward prompted a "What?!" from a woman behind me. Again, Ritchie tries to offset our modern quibbles with playfulness. But while one gender may take pleasure in the sight of Madonna kissing a man's foot, I doubt either one will appreciate Amber and Giuseppe's game of charades (What?!), or their "whimsical" barks and growls. Add Madonna's "Poor me, I have to compete with Britney Spears" speech, and the film is almost so tacky it's good.

But not. Why not? Well, for some reason, Ritchie--director of the greasily cynical Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels--has transformed a cynical film about power into a sloshy movie about dumb love. The dumbness isn't fun. The dumb montages seem mostly about reestablishing Madonna's beauty. The dumb new ending appears an attempt to rehabilitate Madonna's character (pun intended). On the ship, near the beginning, the crusty captain tells a frustrated Giuseppe: "All rich people are the same. They play little games...and they change the rules [for their own amusement]." His advice: Smile wide and take their money. For some reason, that's the one line here that rings true.