The question that needs to be asked about Madonna's "W.E." is why?
Not why would she set out to make a movie to satisfy her obsession with Wallis Simpson, a woman more famous and notorious in her day than Madonna is herself. But why would anyone, after reading the jumbled, rambling script Madonna co-wrote, turn her loose to direct such a mess of pretty pictures and hollow perceptions about the curse of celebrity and the price of true love?
It's easy to understand Madonna's fixation with Simpson, the American divorcee for whom Britain's King Edward VIII gave up the throne. Madonna clearly empathizes with this Material Girl of another generation over the microscopic, often malicious media attention both have endured.
But "W.E." amounts to a case of a big-headed superstar overreaching with empty-headed results. It's poorly conceived, awkwardly orchestrated, drearily paced and bizarrely assembled. The images have the sheen of a really grand music video or perfume commercial, and the movie has about as much insight.
To her credit, Madonna wanted to do something different than the standard period drama in her second time directing (her first was with the gritty London tale "Filth and Wisdom").
Yet her attempt to create a fictional modern woman whose story reflects and even intersects with Simpson's comes off like a bad creative-writing assignment, with Madonna hammering us over the head with dopey parallels between the two.
Madonna intercuts constantly, dizzyingly between Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D'Arcy) in the 1930s and a namesake, Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) in 1998.
The mousy, privileged trophy wife of a rich Manhattan jerk (Richard Coyle), Wally is absorbed, even possessed by the upcoming auction of Wallis and Edward's estate at Sotheby's, where she once worked.
While Cornish is forced to lumber lifelessly along like human driftwood, Riseborough and D'Arcy manage some genuine moments of affection and passion. Too bad they're stuck in a dispassionate story where they have to spend more time in glamorous posing than in acting.
"W.E." flits back and forth with seasick-making frequency as Wally delves deeper into Simpson's life to make sense of her own.
Just like Wallis, Wally's in an unhappy marriage. Just like Wallis, Wally has child-bearing issues. Just like Wallis, Wally suffers through domestic violence. And just like Wallis, Wally meets a man with whom real love just might be possible.
OK, Wally's new guy is a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac) at Sotheby's, not the heir to a kingdom. But you get the point about the connection Wally feels with Wallis — and just in case you don't, Madonna and co-writer Alek Keshishian go to absurd lengths to shove it in your face.
Wallis and Wally even cross into each other's time zones for some fantasy interactions that are weird at their mildest and laughable at their worst (our favorite, when Wallis turns to the gawking Wally and tells her to "get a life").
The anachronisms eventually become so pointless and dull that it's barely worth a titter when Wallis and her Benzedrine-buzzed party guests break into a bacchanal dance set to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant."
Then again, that song title sums up "W.E." pretty well, even better than the shallow pop tune Madonna co-wrote and sings over the end credits.
"W.E.," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R for some domestic violence, nudity and language. Running time: 119 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.