It takes a special kind of talent to make a film as shockingly bad as Welcome to Marwen, and Robert Zemeckis is up for the challenge! What the hell happened to Zemeckis, a director responsible for several legitimately great movies? The filmmaker has always embraced cinematic innovation, pushing the envelope by adopting new technologies – for better and worse. Welcome to Marwen definitely falls into the “worse” category, and in many ways, it feels like the terrible, terrible film Zemeckis has been building towards these last few years.
Here, Zemeckis once again takes viewers on a journey into the Uncanny Valley, employing computer-rendered characters that never seem convincing, and are always distracting. He’s done this several times already – Beowulf, The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol – but Marwen is the absolute pits; the bottom-of-the barrel, be all, end all nightmare destination Zemeckis has been dragging us all towards for the last 11 years. It makes the dead-eyed zombie people of Polar Express look downright cuddly.
Marwen also finds Zemeckis once again needlessly remaking an excellent documentary into an over-the-top shit-show – just as he did with The Walk, repurposing the doc Man on Wire with tons of CGI and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s questionable accent. Here, the Back to the Future mastermind is borrowing from the quiet, melancholy, curious documentary Marwencol. Directed by Jeff Malmberg, Marwencol followed Mark Hogancamp, an artist who was brutally beaten by five men outside a bar. The attack left Hogancamp in a coma for nine days, and in the hospital for 40 more. When he came out, he was a completely different person. His face had been reconstructed, and he had lost almost all of his memories from before the attack – along with his talent for illustration. To channel his artistic and emotional frustrations, Hogancamp built a 1/6-scale Belgian village straight out of World War II, and populated it with dolls based on himself and his friends, decked out in military garb. He then began taking stunning photographs of the dolls posed throughout the village. The photos were so good, they eventually lead to his own art show.
Malmberg’s doc is reserved – it doesn’t use any tricks or flashy edits. It simply lets the story unfold, as told by Hogancamp. The documentary also takes great care to never judge or exploit Hogancamp. It merely presents him as he is, warts and all. With Welcome to Marwen, Zemeckis isn’t interested in any of that, though. You get the sense that he skimmed a summary of Marwencol, focused in on the concept of the dolls, and then said, “How can I take this, and make it unwatchable?”
He and co-writer Caroline Thompson take the bountiful meal that is Marwencol, and slather it with rancid mayo, topped with a urinal cake garnish. It’s a travesty; an act of vandalism. Going from Marwencol to Welcome to Marwen feels tantamount to disrespecting something sacrosanct – as if someone erected a clown dunking booth in the middle of a church. During a funeral. For your father. Gone is the hushed dignity of the documentary, replaced with never-ending gunfights, atrocious jokes that fall flat every time, and a tone so schizophrenic that it’s in desperate need of an antipsychotic.
The set-up is mostly the same: Steve Carell plays Mark Hogancamp, and we learn about his accident, and his model village – which is called Marwen here, not Marwencol. The real Hogancamp sometimes has difficulty separating his doll world from the real world, and Welcome to Marwen wants to play that up. But while the documentary could only give us the dolls frozen in place and Hogancamp’s narration, Welcome to Marwen brings these plastic effigies to horrifying life. We’re forced to jump into Marwen and spend time with Hogancamp’s miniature alter ego, a wisecracking solider named Hoagie. When he’s not fighting Nazi dolls, Hoagie pals around with the women of Marwen, all of whom are based on women from his real life.
There’s Roberta (Merritt Wever), who in the real world owns the hobby store Mark buys his supplies from; Janelle Monáe as Julie, inspired by a woman who helped Mark in rehab; Eiza González as Caralala, who is also a coworker at the bar where Mark works; Gwendoline Christie as Anna, based on Mark’s physical therapist; and Leslie Zemeckis as Suzette, drawn from Mark’s favorite porn star.
We don’t get a sense of who any of these characters are, in both human and doll form. The actresses are all forced to deliver painfully clunky dialogue in-between scenes where they’re engaged in annoyingly-long gunfights with Nazi dolls – dolls based on the men who attacked Mark. I’d like to say this talented group of actresses shines through this septic tank material, but that would be a lie. In addition to her dynamite music, Janelle Monáe has a bright future as a movie star – as long as she stays far away from more movies like this. Wever, a wonderful actress overall, seems actually pained by her dialogue. And Christie delivers all her lines in a Russian accent so outlandish and grating that I kept waiting for a last-minute twist that revealed her character was faking said accent the entire time.
Mark is having more trouble than usual lately, because his lawyer wants him to appear in court during the sentencing of his attackers – something Mark is terrified of doing. Things are complicated further when new neighbor Nicol moves in next door. Mark clearly takes a shine to Nicol – and her high heels. Just like the real Hogancamp, Mark has something of a fetish – although he doesn’t like to call it that – for women’s footwear. He’s also fond of wearing them, and if I had to say one positive thing about Welcome to Marwen, it’s that the film doesn’t try to shy away from this fact. It also gets some points for having the people around Mark (mostly) treat his predilection for women’s shoes as perfectly fine. (Side-note: the real Mark Hogancamp confesses in Marwencol that he likes to dress in women’s clothes as well – and it was admitting this in public that likely got him beaten up by his assailants. Welcome to Marwen leaves the cross-dressing out, and focuses only on the shoes.) Leslie Mann is Nicol, and she delivers a performance so lifeless that it’s downright depressing. As played by Mann, Nicol is clueless, childish and lacking any real personality to speak of – which makes things extra frustrating as Mark develops a huge crush on her.
Carell has carved out a nice career in his post-Office life, turning in good work in both comedies and dramas. Sadly, he’s utterly lost in Marwen. It doesn’t help that the film can never make up its mind what it wants to be – the scenes set in Marwen are goofy, silly and loud, while the scenes in the real world are far more serious and somber. I understand this is intentional – done to better contrast the two worlds. But jumping back and forth between them grows exhausting, and it forces Carell to ping-pong from quiet and shy to loud and boisterous at break-neck speeds – and it never works. Carell also can never get a handle on Mark’s mental state – probably because the script doesn’t really want to delve into his mind too much. It’s clear he suffers from a kind of PTSD, but Zemeckis’ way of visualizing this is downright laughable. The filmmaker employs what can only be described as jump-scares, where something or someone will leap out at Mark, the soundtrack will boom, and then the camera will cut to Carell’s screaming face. This happens at least three separate times, and each instance is worse than the last.
I’m sure everyone involved with Welcome to Marwen thought they were making an inspirational film. That they were telling an emotional story about overcoming pain and past trauma, and coming out stronger in the end. I have no doubt that Marwen‘s intentions are pure. But trying to achieve something, and actually achieving it, are two drastically different things. Welcome to Marwen doesn’t even come close to getting its message across. You won’t feel inspired or uplifted by anything on display here. In all likelihood, you’ll be horrified that a movie with this many talented people could go so horribly, disastrously wrong. With almost two weeks to spare, Welcome to Marwen might very well be the worst film of 2018.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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