Don't blame her--well, at least, not too much.
Granted, it was Madonna who agreed to star in her writer-director husband's remake of Lina Wertmuller's grimly unfunny "Swept Away ... by an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August." Apparently she and Guy Ritchie didn't know that the 1975 Italian film about a wealthy woman and an indigent fisherman stranded on a deserted Mediterranean island was dated the minute it hit. A remake about two people who claw at each other before falling into the surf like Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr didn't just seem untenable; it seemed pointless. It wasn't simply that the original's chatter about capitalists and communists was so 1968. It's that the image of a woman melting into the arms of her attacker was antediluvian--the rape of the Sabine women played for laughs.
Ritchie's version closely follows the arc of Wertmuller's story with only a handful of changes and what sounds like less dialogue. The first iteration begins at sea, with the characters already in gear, while the new "Swept Away" (the cutesy subtitle has been dropped) starts with an American retinue of the rich and pampered cutting a swath through an Italian pier on its way to a yacht. Set for a cruise to the Greek islands are Madonna's character, Amber; her pharmaceutical magnate husband (Bruce Greenwood); two other men (David Thornton and Michael Beattie) and their female accessories, the ship's resident bimbo (Elizabeth Banks) and a cartoon dipsomaniac (Jeanne Tripplehorn) who appears patterned on Patsy from "Absolutely Fabulous."
A diva with a frosted leonine mane, her eyes obscured by windshield-sized sunglasses, Amber enters complaining, stopping only long enough to take hits off her cigarillos. Some of her criticisms read silly, the mewling of a spoiled child (the ship doesn't have a gym); some are perfectly reasonable (she doesn't like reheated coffee), although these are minor infractions compared to the way she treats the help. She's rude to the captain and insulting to the first mate, Giuseppe (Adriano Giannini, whose father, Giancarlo, had the same role in 1975), whom she alternately calls Guido and Pee-Pee. Her philosophy of life, or at least her excuse for living, is summed up by a speech about capitalism that she delivers while furiously pedaling an exercise bike; in essence, those who control the goods, the situation and the power have the right to do what they want.
This diluted political analysis doesn't have the sting of Wertmuller's exchanges, which, however reductive, at least had the benefit of topicality. Set in a climate of intense partisan strife and terrorist violence, the first "Swept Away" used class struggle--the fisherman is a Sicilian communist, the woman a blond Northerner--to obscure deeply unpleasant ideas about men, women and our true natures. At the core of the story is the near infantile dependence the rich have on their employees, a reliance that takes an ironic twist after its Adam and Eve land on the island and the woman discovers she can't fend for herself. Soon after they're cast ashore, the fisherman forces the woman (who had taken to licking wet rocks for water) into wholesale servitude, insisting that she call him master.
For Wertmuller, we're all opportunists no matter what color our flag. Her cynicism is dispiriting but it's also calculating because her jive about class is purely a means to score points about men and women. In the end, all the rich woman needs to find happiness, perhaps even love, is a few well-placed punches and kicks, along with the threat of sexual assault. This rough trade Punch-and-Judy act didn't play well then and it plays worse now. It's bad enough that the director of the noisome gangster films "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch" likes women even less than his predecessor; unlike Wertmuller, he proves incapable of sustaining a scene or a mood, much less a moment of quiet.
It's puzzling what attracted Madonna to "Swept Away," unless she thought that the film could help soften her metal-plate persona. She's had a famously difficult time finding roles that can fit with her outsize personality, and perhaps the idea of getting publicly smacked around seemed like a good way to curry favor with audiences that no longer hang on her every costume change.
In surer, kinder hands, the strategy might have worked. What she couldn't have counted on is that the streak of sadism evidenced in Ritchie's previous features would work so cruelly against her, beginning with her character's diminished wit and savvy, and continuing through the unflattering way in which she is often photographed.