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by Peter Sobczynski

"Causing A Commotion"
2 stars

I must admit that I have never in my life shown much of an interest in the goings-on of the British royal family and their various off-shoots. Sure, I can make the occasional appreciative comment about the architectural wonder of Pippa's hinder and I once informed an entire movie theater audience of the passing of Princess Di in the most tasteless manner imaginable but for the most part, I have labored under the impression that we as a people once went to war in order to divorce ourselves from them and I have never been able ti understand why so many seemingly rational people that I know appear to be so fascinated by them. (When venerable Mom was explaining to me at length about the beauty of the royal wedding last year, I suddenly began to understand what she must have felt like all those years ago when I was regaling her with the genius of whatever gibberish I was into back then.) That said, I must also admit that I have been looking forward to "W.E.," a cinematic meditation on the life of Wallis Simpson, the American socialite and multiple divorces who became one of the most infamous women in the world when England's King Edward VIII renounced his throne in order to marry her, ever since I first heard about it, though not because of any burning desire to endure yet another retelling of that particular tale.

For one thing, the film is the second directorial effort from Madonna and as a longtime fan who has all her albums, owns a copy of the French edition of her once-scandalous "Sex" book and was first in line to see "Body of Evidence" on the day it came out (and found myself spending almost as much time rolling on the floor in the theater as she did on the screen (albeit for different reasons), I am always ready for whatever she has to offer. The other, equally important reason is that over the years, I have developed a distinct taste for bizarre cinematic follies--the kind of deliriously demented projects that can emerge when a production is launched with plenty of money, star power and ambition but little in the way of common sense--and between the subject matter and memories of Madonna's previous effort behind the cameras--the barely released, barely seen and barely directed "Filth & Wisdom"--"W.E." promised to be one for the books and the early reviews that appeared when it premiered last fall at the Venice Film Festival seemed to indicate just that. Alas, while it is nowhere near as bad as those early reviews suggested--and a good many of them seemed more interested in slamming Madonna wholesale than in taking the film on its own terms--the trouble with "W.E." is that it fails to distinguish itself either as a Madonna movie or as a campy disaster. Instead, the whole endeavor is a tepid mess that is stylishly made but intellectually and emotionally vapid and never as good as it could have been nor as awful as some might have hoped.

The film eschews the traditional biopic format for a dual story framework in which the familiar story of the growing relationship between Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D'Arcy) and how he eventually abdicated his throne in order to be with her is intertwined with a 1998-set narrative involving one of the many people to be swept up by the romance of the tale. This storyline follows Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a New York socialite who is secretly miserable due to her marriage to a rich but abusive philanderer and her inability to conceive a child with said monster. When a collection of items once owned by Wallis and Edward go up for sale at Sotheby's (where Wally previously worked as a research assistant before being forced to quit by the aforementioned ogre), she begins to obsess over their story and how it parallels her own. At the same time, she catches the eye of security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a Russian immigrant who is hunky, brainy and apparently very good with money since he lives in the kind of loft that most well-to-do New Yorkers would kill to possess and which even features a grand piano from which he occasionally noodles poetically. To further highlight the parallels between the two stories, there are even a few points in which Wallis appears before Wally to offer pithy observations--at one point, Wally even reciprocates by appearing during one low point in Wallis' post-marriage life but alas, the most she can offer in return of profundity is the deathless "At least you have each other."

To give Madonna and co-writer Alex Keshishian (who directed the hit documentary "Madonna: Truth or Dare" credit, what they are attempting to do here is at least somewhat more ambitious than the usual biopic. However, as they inadvertently prove here, ambition does not count for very much when it lacks any clear focus or discernible point. There are times in which the film tries to play up the fairy-tale aspect of Wallis' life by lavishing viewers with so many close-ups of sparkling jewelry, designer clothes and other fancy accoutrements that they seem to get more screen time than many of the actors. At the same time, it also seems to want to dispel the myths that have surrounded this story by suggesting that not even this great romance was enough to make her happy when all was said and done. At other times, however, Madonna is still perfectly content to offer up the sugar-coated version of the story when it suits her needs, most notably in regard to Edward's documented reputation as a Nazi sympathizer, an inconvenient fact that she deals with by having it be brought up by Wally's loathsome husband and quickly dismissed as mere rumor. And yet, as dramatically uneven as these scenes may be, they are easily the best to be had in the film. This is partly because Riseborough does a fairly good job of approximating Wallis and manages to hold her own against both the swooning style and the resolutely uncharismatic D'Arcy, who utterly fails to hold up his end of the bargain in the romantic chemistry department. However, it is also due to the fact that the contemporary material is nothing more than a pretentious and borderline ridiculous bore through and through that is further done in by a performance by the usually reliable Cornish that is so utterly flat and lifeless that it seems as if she is auditioning to become an extra in the next George Romero zombie epic.

Despite the odd dual-narrative structure, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of "W.E." is that there never seems to be any indication of what it was about the story of Wallis Simpson that drove Madonna to sink millions of dollars of her own money into making a film about it. Many reviews of the film have speculated that as an American woman of certain notoriety who relocated to England and tried to make a place for herself in that close-knit society, she must have felt enough of a certain kinship with Simpson to see her story as a way of grappling with her own personal experiences along those lines. That sounds like an interesting notion for a movie but Madonna has chosen not to explore it and the film is poorer for it. Personally, I think it would have made for a far more interesting project if she had just gone down that path unabashedly and made it explicitly about herself and her shared experience with Simpson. Sure, it might have resulted in the kind of egofest that would have made even Norman Mailer blush but it would have been the kind of grandly ambitious undertaking that few would have even dared to attempt and fewer might have managed to pull off successfully. Even if she had failed in trying something along these lines, I daresay that the results would have been more interesting than the unbelievably draggy contemporary scenes featuring the poor little rich girl moping about--it is absolutely bewildering that someone like Madonna could possibly create a character as resoundingly bland, weak and uninteresting as Wally and expect audiences to care at all about her as she mopes about in her gilded cage in a perpetual pout.

As a director, Madonna's work here is a considerable improvement over "Filth & Wisdom"--how could it not be?--and it is certainly looks good throughout in the manner of a "Vanity Fair" photo shoot come to life. However, those hoping for any innovative flourishes on a par with her musical achievements will be disappointed to discover that the film is almost disconcertingly straightforward from a stylistic standpoint as well. The closest thing she comes to the kind of bold flourish that one might expect is a strange sequence in which Edward and Wallis goose up a dull party with hits of speed for everyone and get them dancing to, of all things, the classic Sex Pistols tune "Pretty Vacant" and that merely comes across as a wan approximation of what Sofia Coppola did in the infinitely superior "Marie Antoinette." That film, you will recall, also offered viewers a not-unsympathetic view of a controversial historical figure but did so in ways that intrigued the mind as well as pleased the eye. By comparison, the best thing that can be said about "W.E." is that as failed bits of year-end Oscar bait involving England in the 20th century, it is better than "The Iron Lady." Unfortunately, it isn't that much better.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22638&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/09/12 21:33:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 68th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 68th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.

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  09-Dec-2011 (R)
  DVD: 01-May-2012


  DVD: 01-May-2012

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