Madonna plays good Madonna. Though this distinction has been noted by every Madonna apologist in the free word, she was terrific in Desperately Seeking Susan. But then, playing the curvy, downtown trollop was just an extension of herself. Just as her mugging, swearing, and stomping her little feet through her documentary Truth or Dare was essentially Madonna acting "real" Madonna. Give her a mirror reflection and she comes alive. Give her an actual person (as her yoga instructor in the abysmal The Next Best Thing) and she's flat, hollow, and utterly without charisma. But it comes as a surprise that she's so flat in Guy Ritchie's Swept Away (2002), a curious follow-up to his usually fun, pulpy cockney crime comedies Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Playing a Gucci-wearing exercise-obsessed control-freak bitch who's aging as concretely as her meticulously sculpted body, you'd think she'd absolutely fulminate. Barking orders in her affected voice hinting a British accent, maniacally riding her exercise bike, one would suppose she's playing what she plays best. Is this the newest incarnation of Madonna? Maybe the marooned on a deserted island part got in the way it's safe to say that's never happened to her. And then there's the weak script, which to be fair to Mrs. Ritchie Mr. Ritchie must accept the blame for. A re-working of Italian director and provocateur Lina Wertmuller's 1974 sex, sand, and politics art-house shocker Travolti da un Insolito Destino Nell'Azzurro Mare D'Agosto (Swept Away ... by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August), Ritchie does exactly what should not be done in an update he tones things down. Coming off sometimes as an MTV-inspired version of Goldie Hawn's Overboard mixed with some canny moments of bitch-slapping, Ritchie makes the whole affair cutesy.
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Stepping in for the brilliant Mariangela Melato of the earlier film is Madonna with golden hair and a black bathing suit. She plays Amber Leighton, the hostile wife of a pharmaceutical tycoon (Bruce Greenwood) who endures her constant annoyance because, well... he must be a masochist. Taking a boat trip from Greece to Italy, they are joined by two other couples a pill poppin' babe (Jeanne Tripplehorne), a brain-dead honey (Elizabeth Banks), and their husbands. Amber complains about everything on the boat from the fish to the coffee to the crew's clothes. The boat's fisherman, a young Italian named Giuseppe Esposito (Adriano Giannini, filling in for his father, Giancarlo, who made sodomy so appealing in 1974), hates her bitterly, partially from a deep-seated attraction between the two (though we never buy it). When Amber insists on an outing in the dinghy, Giuseppe (whom she calls "Peepee") takes her, but through bad luck and stupidity the two find themselves stranded on a deserted island. The tables turn. Giuseppe gives orders, instructs Amber to call him "Master," and hits her (though not enough to test our comfort level). Though Giannini is soulful and raggedly good looking, his chemistry with Madonna is lacking, making the chasing and kicking and screaming look just silly. In the few scenes he dominates, the picture is enjoyable, even touching. And when Madonna lets her guard down a bit (a line about competing with 18-year-olds is uttered with honesty), she's almost there. But she never loses her inhibitions. Supposedly, Madonna's all about pushing buttons in the daringly sexy department, so why demure? And why remove most of the politics from the original? Though Ritchie shoves in some crap about pollution and capitalism, it comes off with the staginess of someone who's never had a conversation about either subject. And keeping the sex and violence to a minimum, he doesn't expand on the premise that natural men are hunters and women sometimes must stay in line particularly if they want to survive. The nature vs. nurture argument could have been provocative in 2002, but as we can see in the film's "Swept Away Movie Special" (included on the DVD), Ritchie was jealous filming his wife frolicking with another man. So then, exactly what's the point of making this film? Ripe for a re-make, Swept Away should have been passed on by the Ritchies and taken up by a far superior and more perverse household. Just imagine what the Polanskis would have done with this material. Columbia TriStar presents Swept Away on DVD in a pristine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 (English) and Dolby 2.0 Surround (French). Extras include trailers, subtitles, filmographies, 16 deleted scenes (most of which have more Madonna bitching and more Giannini slapping), the irritating "Swept Away Movie Special," and a very uninspired commentary track by Ritchie and producer Matthew Vaughn. Keep-case.