Welcome to Marwen once again shows director Robert Zemeckis taking a popular documentary and getting his mitts all over it. Lately, as a filmmaker, he has a fondness for image-capture animation and flashy special effects. Most recently, he made The Walk, which dramatized the documentary Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit, who infamously walked on a tightrope between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. This is one of his better recent films because it combines the two things he does so well. It has the kind of technical wizardry he’s become known for since films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Polar Express, and the more truthful, grounded drama films like Forrest Gump and Cast Away. His newest finds actor Steve Carell once again attempting to be seen as a serious dramatic actor after finding years of success in comedic ventures.
Unfortunately, Welcome to Marwen is a complete and utter debacle. It’s one of the most bewilderingly horrible movies of 2018.
Mark Hogancamp (Carell) was nearly beaten to death outside of a bar in upstate New York in the year 2000, after talking in the bar about how he was a cross-dresser. He was beaten so badly that he was in a coma for nine days, suffered memory loss, had to learn how to walk again, and never quite recovered fully. As a way to cope with his PTSD, he designed an art installation that he dubbed Marwen. It’s a miniature town, set in World War II-era Belgium, full of Barbie dolls that are meant to represent people in his own life – particularly, the women, who run the show and are always out to save him and give him the strength he needs to live another day.
The documentary Marwencol (why it becomes Marwencol is a plot point) was released in 2010. It’s emotionally gripping and tells this important story with the immediacy it deserves. Because Zemeckis loves his performance capture animation so much, the dolls come to life in a way that is not pleasing to the eye. The animated dolls are the stuff of nightmares, and we spend about half the movie with them. The action going on in Marwen is almost inconsequential to the plot in the real world. One bit involving a Belgian Nazi witch played by Diane Kruger is meant to be a third-act reveal about a part of Mark’s struggle. But anyone who is paying attention can see where this is going a mile away.
I do not think Steve Carell is a bad actor. I think he’s fine in a dramatic role, and he’s giving a warm, sensitive performance. But Mark is written in a way that feels vaguely eerie and menacing, and he’s supposed to be the emotional core of this story. The women in his life who inspire the dolls are objectified in a weird way, although they’re also kind of empowered – It reminds me of how the female characters were treated in Sucker Punch. They’re warriors, but there’s a lot here that feels kind of gross.
We have a new neighbor played by Leslie Mann, a physical therapist played by Janelle Monae, a sales clerk played by Merritt Wever, a bartender played by Eiza González and a Russian caretaker played by Gwendoline Christie (with a laughably terrible accent that almost makes the movie worth seeing). Everything in the real world feels more engaging than anything going on in the animated world of Marwen. There are some nice moments with Merritt Wever, who I don’t think gets enough work that’s on her level, and also Leslie Mann, who is doing better work than this film deserves. Everyone else is pretty much wasted.
Welcome to Marwen aims for profound and misses. It attempts sentimentality and winds up with schmaltz. By the time we get to the credits, we get that this is a well-intentioned project, but Zemeckis should have known better. Going back and forth between the animated world of Marwen and the real world where Mark’s life is falling apart, creates a tonal imbalance that the movie never figures out how to fix. In making Mark a Hollywood hero, Zemeckis can’t help but make one man’s PTSD feel like a theme park attraction. In serializing this documentary, he trivializes it. It doesn’t lack for ambition, but Zemeckis actively destroys every moment that threatens to turn Welcome to Marwen into emotionally gripping storytelling. Rent the doc instead.