The Title Sounds Like an Invitation. The Film is a Sentence.
DIRECTED BY ROBERT ZEMECKIS/2018
While Welcome to Marwen might come from the director of such classic films as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, it in no way carries the legacy of Robert Zemeckis forward. Once on the cutting edge of technology, having created such tech-grounded films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Polar Express, and Beowulf, Zemeckis is once again in the technological laboratory, only this time he forgot to attach a compelling story with which to showcase his compelling visuals.
Though Marwen features a compelling cast, the whole thing feels tired and the narrative arcs made more for a Lifetime film than one with as many bonafides as Zemeckis, who also co-write the screenplay with Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas). Based on the 2010 documentary, Marwencol, Welcome to Marwen keeps the basic premise of the real-life story alive, while inventing its own facts for narrative purposes. One wonders if Zemeckis should have followed Forrest Gump’s advice and let the documentary be all “there was to say about that”.
Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell- Vice, Foxcatcher) is an artist who has survived a brutal attack at a bar at the hands of several men. Having lost much of his memories, and his ability to draw, Mark has created his own little Belgium town he calls Marwen, and later Marwencol, that he photographs, telling his own fictional World War II story. His story features himself as the fictional Cap’n Hogie, who along with his “girls of Marwen”, as they fight the evil hordes of Nazis who never seem to die but are reanimated over and over by the “Belgium Witch” named Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger- Inglorius Basterds, National Treasure).
The girls of Marwen consist of Anna (Gwendoline Christie- Star Wars: The Last Jedi), GI Julie (Janelle Monae- Hidden Figures), Wendy (Stephanie Von Pfetten-Percy Jackson), Roberta (Merritt Wever- Birdman), Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis- Beowulf), and Carlala (Eiza Gonzalez- Baby Driver). Each of these girls have real life counterparts in Mark’s life, from the waitress that saved him after the attack, to his favorite actress, each of these women make up the 12-inch dolls that accompany Mark’s alter-ego, Hogie, and who fight the Nazi’s. Through this fantasy world and the photographs he takes of his dolls and the doll-house-like town he has created, Mark seeks to piece back the life and memories he lost from the trauma he faced several years ago.
While this is all covered in the film’s trailer, along with the emergence of a new neighbor named Nicole (Leslie Mann- This is 40, The Other Woman), who also becomes a love interest for Mark, and by extension Hogie, Welcome to Marwen fails to deliver on any of the promises that the film seeks to project. What could be a tender story of a man’s attempt to overcome his crippling trauma through his own artistic creations, and the support of those who have poured into his life instead becomes a 2-hour exercise of looking at one’s watch, even when one doesn’t wear one. As Zemeckis was all-too-eager to display his latest motion-capture technology bringing the fictional world of Marwen to life with fantastic realism that made the 12-inch dolls perfectly resemble the real life personalities Mark has fashioned them after, he failed to do the same to the story.
Often, the film itself constantly transitions into the world of Marwen in the middle of a scene to jarring effect. While this is meant to happen as Mark retreats into this world, Zemeckis does so in ways that remove the viewer from a scene that could have provided the needed emotional weight to anchor the story in a deeper way. The result is that the film feels like you’re watching 2 hours of a man playing with dolls, and you forget to care what produced this world in the first place, namely a man’s intense suffering. The reasons for this suffering, and subsequently the reason these men targeted Mark for such a brutal beating, are underplayed as a sort of comic fetish, and we never really connect with this aspect of Mark’s life.
His desire to own and wear women’s shoes are brought up, but often the script moves to off-set it, by making Mark so over-the-top in his sexist attitudes towards the women of Marwen. He calls them “dames” and other terms of the WWII era (at least that we might know from films of that time), depicts them as being sexually assaulted, or at minimum having their blouses ripped open as they run and fight. Granted, while any topless scenes are handled by the 12-inch “Barbie” dolls, and not the actual actresses, it is too easily brushed off in the film. The real life women might show up at Mark’s house, see the topless doll that they know is them, and simply state, “I had my shirt ripped open again?”, as if its old hat. Never is this developed as a part of Mark’s larger issues, but is used as comedic material.
Zemeckis generated one laugh at the screening I attended by depicting a time machine in Marwen that visually provided a call-back to a certain DeLorean when it hits 88-mph. Sadly, it took something he created 33-years ago to get one of the biggest reactions of the whole film he directed this year. Despite the best attempts by the cast, this example encapsulates everything wrong with this film. It is one of the worst films of the year, period. This is even more true given the cast, the budget, and the past successes of Welcome to Marwen’s director. While the film’s title sounds like an invitation, the film is really a sentence, and one that you can easily avoid. Simply put: If you don’t do the crime (buy a ticket), you won’t have to do the time (see this film). If you’d like to see Carrell do some better work, head down the hallway at your local cinema and check out Vice where he plays Donald Rumsfeld. You’ve been warned. You’re welcome.