Madonna is Amber Leighton, a bored uber-wealthy socialite who takes out her bitterness over her marriage to a lackluster pharmaceutical giant (Bruce Greenwood) by lashing out at the little people. On a cruise between Greece and Italy with hubby and two other couples, Amber blasts everyone in sight with her icy scorn, but heaps special abuse on scruffy sailor/waiter and all-around servant, Giueseppe (Adriano Giannini, whose father, Giancarlo Giannini, starred in the original film). Like any good fairy tale, actions have consequences, and Amber's unreasonable demands result in her being stuck on an island alone with Giueseppe, whose rage and frustration turns him into a cave-man supreme.
The supposed kicker in this frothy fantasy is that Amber takes to being smacked around and assaulted and so falls in love with her Beast. Or does she? Ritchie's pedestrian script does nothing to suggest depth to the characters, so it's hard to tell. Just when the story appears to be headed toward a moment of revelation, it is, well, swept away. Amber remains inscrutable, except for a passing suggestion that she might not be all that she appears. By contrast, despite Giueseppe's insistence that he is a man, his simplistic political diatribe (perhaps included only as a tribute to Wertmuller's pontificating) and shaggy delight at returning to a primitive state smacks of frat boyishness that betrays the ugly sexism behind it.
Ritchie's limitations as a director only heighten Madonna's well-known acting restrictions. In the first half of the film, she is completely unable to project the haughty disdain required (one shivers simply recalling a single frozen glance from the likes of Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck), coming across instead as a petulant brat. Unable to break out of her enormous iconic presence or put it to use to suggest Amber as a type-A frustrated woman of potential-and fragility-Madonna merely comes across as stiff and wooden. One remains mesmerized by the star's chiseled body, but rarely moved. She fares better in the second half, but the slender story is unable to support her.
Ritchie and Madonna are at their best in montage bits requiring little acting and no dialogue (can anyone say "video"?), including a foolish but mildly amusing fantasy sequence in which Madonna sashays about in a sparkling yellow gown, lip synching Rosemary Clooney's "Come-On a My House." But it's far too little to hang a film on; Beauty and even the Beast deserve better. Starring Madonna and Adriano Giannini. Directed and written by Guy Ritchie. Produced by Matthew Vaughn. A Screen Gems release. Romantic comedy. Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 108 min