Madonna as director: A material ‘W.E.’

FINALLY, A Hollywood feature directed by someone who's performed live at the Super Bowl halftime show.

The movie is "W.E.," the director is Madonna, whose gift for marketing is obviously undiminished.

On Sunday, she's voguing in the middle of the most-watched American television program ever. On Tuesday, she's announcing her summer tour dates (Aug. 28 in Philadelphia).

Today she unveils her first feature, and boy is it . . . well-marketed. Otherwise, it's a demented, wealth-besotted, royal-slurping Cartier commercial that also functions as an airbrushed account of the relationship between Britain's King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy) and Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the Baltimore lass for whom he gave up his throne.

You may remember the pair as bit players in "The King's Speech," a movie that sketched Edward as a fatuous playboy eager to shuck the dreary bonds of duty to drink martinis poured by a social-climbing Yankee trollop.

You may also remember some of the attendant press, which mentioned that Edward, as king, wasn't as tough on the Nazis as he might have been - after abdication, Edward shook hands with a grinning Adolf Hitler on a Third Reich honeymoon with Simpson.

"Third Reich Honeymoon" is not a title that Madonna considered. In fact, there's a lot of clumsy exposition in "W.E." inserted to explain it all away. Wallis moans that Edward's notorious Hitler handshake spawned "rumor" and "innuendo" about Nazi sympathies.

I'm shocked that media-savvy Madonna would make such a blunder. You cannot build a character on "I Am Not a Nazi Sympathizer." It's always poor salesmanship.

Certainly it gets in the way of what Madonna argues is the greatest love story of the century. Or second-greatest, next to the one between Madonna and herself.

Her portrait of Simpson, forty-something media-magnet divorcée and hard-nosed American gal, sounds like someone else we know.

Edward to Simpson: "Are all American girls such good dancers?"

Later, Simpson describes herself as a woman of modest gifts who manufactured ways to capture attention: "The only thing I could do was dress better than anyone else."

Spoken like a woman who wore an Egyptian headdress to the Super Bowl.

Her theme in "W.E." is that Simpson, not Edward, made the great sacrifice. She gave up her second marriage, her "freedom" and her "privacy" to marry Edward, and in doing so bravely agreed to be known as history's most notorious home-wrecker (the home being the House of Windsor).

Ah, fame. As fickle as the thrice-married Simpson herself. Through alter-ego Simpson, Madonna, with a straight face, asks us to consider the difficulties of living with flashbulbs in your face.

Forgot to mention that gorgeous Abbie Cornish stars in the movie's second narrative layer, playing a contemporary American woman in a bad marriage whose obsession with Simpson is expressed this way: What would it feel like to be loved that much?

It would feel heavy. Simpson carries more extra weight in "W.E." than Seabiscuit. Every two minutes she gets a new bauble, which Edward encloses in a note or drops in her tea cup while yachting at Cote d'Azur, France, or Portofino, Italy. Madonna, at one point, actually takes us to the Cartier workshop.

"W.E." is the kind of movie that contains product placement for Sotheby's. There are long scenes of rich people applauding each other as they bid on royal trinkets.

I applaud Madonna for trying to reinvent herself yet again, this time as a dramatic filmmaker.

But on the evidence presented here, I think she's gone gaga.


Directed by Madonna. With Annabelle Wallis, Natalie Gal, Richard Coyle, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Dormer, Abbie Cornish, James D'Arcy, Christina Chong, James Fox, Oscar Isaac. Distributed by The Weinstein Company.

Running time: 1 hours, 29 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for some domestic violence, nudity, and language).