"Swept Away" is the kind of bad movie that only talented people can make. This is a misbegotten, arty desert-island comedy on sexual politics that stars Madonna, is written and directed by her filmmaker husband Guy Ritchie ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels") and is imprudently based on the Italian film classic by Lina Wertmuller.
Wertmuller's movie, a frenetic satirical sex romp about a haughty socialite marooned on an island with an insatiable yacht crewman, made a big splash in the mid-'70s, delighting art-house audiences while enraging some feminist critics (for the violence of its lovemaking and the playfulness of its satires on Marxist rhetoric). But this "Swept Away" is such a colossal misfire, it's probably incapable of inspiring any controversy more serious than whether it might constitute grounds for divorce.
Probably not. True love can survive anything -- even this movie, with its vacation-in-the-Bahamas seascapes, its fancy long-shot desert island orgies and its scenes of the idle rich, chattering idiotically while resentful crewmen glare or guffaw. And it's hard to guess which party sustained more damage here: Madonna, in her onscreen revelation as a temporarily mirthless high comedienne and temporarily unsexy sex symbol, or Ritchie, exposed as a would-be director of sophisticated comedy with a weakness for sunlit shorelines, yowling love scenes and campy musical numbers (this film's example: a rib-nudging Madonna cover of Rosemary Clooney's '50s hit "Come on-a My House).
Yet it's easy to see why Ritchie and Madonna were so taken with the idea of remaking "Swept Away," a film that was already the victim of the vaguely similar "Overboard," a 1987 movie with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Wertmuller's original is the kind of art-house movie that more mainstream filmmakers tend to admire and think they could do just as well -- a sexy, sunny, funny movie with brash jokes and lots of scenery and eroticism.
In Wertmuller's version (whose full title was "Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August") sad-eyed crewman Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini) is the target of Mariangelo Melato's rich-witch vacationer Raffaella, an exasperating motor-mouth who torments him until after they drift away in a dinghy in a storm.
Winding up lost together on an uninhabited desert isle, the sexual undercurrents explode and their roles reverse -- Gennarino becomes lord of the island and Raffaella his pliant, adoring sex slave -- then reverse once again when civilization "rescues" them.
The new "Swept Away" pretty much follows the original story. It begins, once again with the rich party of revelers arriving on the boat, introduces the crew and the conflicts, then wrecks Amber and Giuseppe onto the island. Here, she's Amber and he's Giuseppe; she's the wife of pharmaceutical king Tony ( Bruce Greenwood, the JFK of "13 Days") and they're joined by two other chatterbox upper-class couples, including Jeanne Tripplehorn and David Thornton as trippy Marina and tolerant Michael.
So intent are the remakers on recapturing Wertmuller's spirit that they've cast Giannini's son, Adriano Giannini, to reprise his father's role -- even though English is his obvious second language, and this means sacrificing comic timing in his scenes. They also put Amber on an Italian boat with a supposedly Italian crew, all of whom inexplicably speak Italian-accented English to each other with occasional subtitled interludes. Writer-director Ritchie also tries to recast the original's political irreverence in 2002 terms, which is a real anachronism. The kind of class antagonisms that were Wertmuller's favorite theme are rarely discussed these days except on cable news TV programs by so-called Republican strategists who routinely and obtusely accuse Democrats of "class warfare." But Ritchie, whose first two pictures were the raffish British gangster comedies "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (still his best film) and "Snatch," gamely plugs way, trying to establish more than a sadomasochistic connection.
By the time they get to the island, though, you may be wishing for less sex and more musical numbers, on the theory that one of them has to hit big. Unfortunately not only do we get unusually boring soft-core sex, but we also get sentimentality -- something Wertmuller (and, up to now, Ritchie) usually avoided.
One hopes that this is Hollywood's last go-round with "Swept Away." Watching this fiasco, I kept having nightmares about a possible cartoon version, co-starring Cruella de Vil and Shrek.
Actually, that one might have worked.
1 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed and written by Guy Ritchie; photographed by Alex Barber; edited by Eddie Hamilton; production designed by Russell de Rozario; music by Michel Colombier; produced by Matthew Vaughn. A Screen Gems release; opens Friday, Oct. 11. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity).
Amber -- Madonna
Giuseppe -- Adriano Giannini
Marina -- Jeanne Tripplehorn
Tony -- Bruce Greenwood
Debi -- Elizabeth Banks
Michael -- David Thornton Captain -- Yorgo Voyagis
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.