Biopics are a sad side effect of fall film season. Studios slot them in the calendar as “good movie time” because of their true-ish nature, the fact that they’re ostensibly about adults, and their ability to snag best actor or best actress Oscars. The other side of that coin is that these movies aren’t winning best picture — sometimes they’re not even nominated — and there’s a reason for that.
Not all lives include the raw material to make a decent movie. Even when working with the rare subject that does provide the goods, filmmakers should understand that a recitation of the biographical facts a movie does not make.
On paper, especially if that paper is on the desk of a studio executive, A.A. Milne makes sense as a biopic subject. His life spanned two World Wars. He’s a writer — that entirely uncinematic profession that movies and the writers of movies can’t resist. And his most famous recreation is a valuable piece of intellectual property, a cute bear named Winnie the Pooh.
Goodbye Christopher Robin attempts to dramatize Milne’s post-traumatic stress after surviving World War I, his search for a worthwhile creative endeavor, and the struggles of fatherhood. But the film’s main conflict is with its source material, twisting and wringing Milne’s life for everything it’s worth and hoping enough is squeezed out to qualify as a film. The whole story is bookended by a gigantic red herring that’s supposed to serve as its emotional crux and is completely devoid of any tension for anyone who’s looked up Milne on Wikipedia.
As played by the usually wonderful Domhnall “Rhymes with Tonal” Gleeson, Milne begins as a stuffy, emotionally removed aristocrat with a nasty case of Movie PTSD (essentially, balloons scare him) and a young son with dimples from which light cannot escape, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston). Milne wants to write something that will help push war to go the way of slavery, a horrible memory of an unrecognizable past. And to do that, he moves to the country, much to the displeasure of his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), whose main function is to nag the plot forward. The well established charms of both Gleeson and Robbie are missing entirely here, sacrificed on the altar of forced narrative and contrivance.
It’s out in the country, that Milne and his son — abandoned by the confoundingly cruel Daphne and the plot’s need for a baseline of drama — begin a game that eventually evolves into the stories of Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet. The only insight we get into the origin of these beloved characters is that they were mostly stolen from a young boy’s imagination and then sold, which resulted in a terrible adolescence for Christopher Robin. (Be sure to bring the kids!)
Goodbye Christopher Robin plods along, working toward the framing device’s cheap payoff, without a real sense of what the core story is. Is it that fame is bad? Or that creative men should ignore their status-hungry wives? Is it that nannies like Christopher Robin’s (Kelly Macdonald) shouldn’t have lives of their own, eventually abandoning their wards? Maybe you should just be aware that your Pooh doll came at the expense of one boy’s innocence.
Since the movie doesn’t do the audience the service of providing much of a point, let it be that biopics are not the gimmes of award season. Without, at the very least, a script to prop up a stellar performance, they’re drama-free, rote, and almost all numbingly dull.
As Winnie the Pooh might say on a more cynical day, “Don’t bother.” C