By Sarah D. Bunting | Press Play February 19, 2012 at 8:57AM
When a movie bombs, I like to go to Rotten Tomatoes, sort the reviews by "Rotten," and enjoy the show. Flops can bring out the best a critic (or her thesaurus) has to offer, the acidic synonyms and dismissive gut-punches she saves for when a movie is genuinely and thoroughly crap and not just misguided or inconsistent, and I like scorched-earth movie reviews for the wordsmithing -- but also because I know that glorious tingle, that "I'm-a stomp this flat and make the deadline with two hours to spare" feeling.
W.E., drowning in the boot of a 13%-Fresh rating at present, isn't as hateful as I'd expected, but I still had fun scrolling down the reviews list, which is kind of like sighting down a line of golf pros at the driving range. "Relentlessly monotonous" -- whock! "A pointless and pretentious oddity" -- whock! "A sloppy, hubristic affair" -- whock! "Vapid," "torpid," "abysmal" -- whock whock whock!
The movie is pretty to look at (the nomination is for Costume Design), but it has a Julie and Julia problem. Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), unhappily married and underemployed in the present day, becomes obsessed with what she thinks of as the great love of King Edward and Wallis Simpson, and visits the Sotheby's auction of their effects every day. (She touches every goddamn item for sale, and later their love letters, without archival gloves or reproach from anyone. Just one of many minor errors that added up to a clueless script.) Her husband (Richard Coyle) is a twattily dismissive workaholic who later becomes abusive, and it's one of those straw-man bad film marriages in which you don't understand why these people even know each other. Coyle can't commit to the character -- with good reason; the script gives him nothing but retrograde attitudes and Scotch-drinking to work with -- while Cornish plays what she's given, a wan simp, rather too well.
The flashbacks work better, with fantastic set design, mouth-watering outfits, and a snappy performance by Andrea Riseborough as Wallis. The sequences in the past aren't good, quite; James D'Arcy as Edward is a bore, and it takes the film too long to get to the abdication. But it's better than the present-day material, in which the love of a blue-collar cutie (Oscar Isaac, very good in Drive and better than W.E. deserves) solves Wally's life.
The script dodges a few key issues (Edward and Wallis's Nazi sympathies are waved off with a too-flip "just rumors, guvnor"-type scene) while lingering over others that don't merit it, like the ludicrous IVF subplot. Other moments land like a sackful of cowbells -- Wallis bugging out to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant," for one. And of course the thoughtful, sweet, poetry-reading, piano-playing security guard has a $2 million loft in Williamsburg.
I sat there checking my watch and longing for other, better versions of W.E. -- Guy Pearce playing his King's Speech version of Edward, a documentary about the famous couple, anything but yet another "poignant" close-up of Wally creepily sniffing another woman's table linens.
Madonna really knows how to shoot a $5,000 floor lamp, I'll give her that, but it's too long, it's tone-deaf…I basically paid $13.50 to watch a live-action catalog, and it's not even bad enough to merit an MST3K viewing.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.