Welcome to Marwen is an ambitious, but miscalculated and otherwise misguided attempt to blend effects-driven filmmaking with grounded storytelling.
Welcome to Marwen is the latest project from Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis, and his second film based on a documentary after The Walk. The drama was inspired by Jeff Malmberg's 2010 documentary Marwencol, which explores the life and work of illustrator-turned photographer Mark Hogancamp, after he was brutally assaulted in 2000. With Marwen, Zemeckis tries to combine the type of whiz-bang entertainment that made him famous early in his career (see: Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) with a more traditional dramatization of Mark's recovery process. Unfortunately, the resulting film is largely a misfire across the board. Welcome to Marwen is an ambitious, but miscalculated and otherwise misguided attempt to blend effects-driven filmmaking with grounded storytelling.
Steve Carell stars in the film as Mark Hogancamp, a New York-based artist who is viciously attacked and left for dead by five men at a bar, after he tells them he enjoys wearing shoes designed for women. While he manages to survive the ordeal, Mark is left with severe brain damage and has virtually no memory of his life before the assault. No longer able to write his own name (much less draw), Mark turns to photography and begins taking photos of a miniature WWII-era Belgian village he created and calls Marwen.
In addition to populating the town with dolls inspired by the women in his life and a stand-in for himself (Air Force Captain Hoagie) Mark begins to imagine elaborate stories about the citizens of Marwen and their battles with not only the Nazis, but also Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger): a witch who is determined to keep Hoagie from falling in love with anyone. However, when Mark is called upon by his lawyer to deliver a statement about his attackers as part of their trial, he struggles to step away from his fantasy world and truly confront the trauma he now carries in real-life.
Like The Walk, Welcome to Marwen is Zemeckis' attempt to use cutting-edge technology to tell a true story in a way that its documentary inspiration simply couldn't. In Marwen's case, that means using motion-capture and CGI to bring the world in Mark's photographs (literally) to life, in order to express the inner reality he's constructed. Problem is, these fantastical sequences - which make up a significant chunk of the film, if not the majority - tend to be very repetitive and offer little in the way of additional insight into Mark's experience. Similarly, Marwen's attempts to imbue Mark's dolls with more realistic expressions and movement (through the cast's mo-cap performances) are interesting in theory, but ineffective in action and prevent the scenes set in Mark's imagination from leaving an emotional impact. The uncanny valley visuals aren't solely to blame here either; sorry to say, the film's screenplay also struggles to give Marwen's residents much in the way of memorable personalities or interesting stories to play out.
Zemeckis, who cowrote the movie with Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride) in addition to directing, generally struggles to hit the right tone with Welcome to Marwen. As he's done with his previous work, the filmmaker attempts to make pretty somber and challenging subject matter (in this case, Mark's intense post-traumatic stress) more palatable and hopeful by balancing the story's dramatic moments with cutesy humor and unabashed sentimentality. Here, sadly, the results are schmaltzy more than uplifting and fail to express the range of emotions and feelings that Hogancamp's real-life photographs communicate with far less effort. Thankfully, the film avoids being flat-out exploitative in its efforts to evoke pathos from Mark's PTSD and comes across as a well-intentioned failure, on the whole.
It's still a shame though, in light of Carell's sensitive performance in Welcome to Marwen. The moments where Mark is quietly working on his photography or trying to avoid retreating into his imagination (whenever his real life becomes too painful to bear) are some of the film's most poignant and tender passages. These scenes also feature some of the best visual storytelling in the movie, as Zemeckis and his DP C. Kim Miles (who's worked on TV series like Arrow, The Flash, and Lost in Space) generally succeed in finding ways to say a lot about Mark's psychological state without a word of dialogue. Against, though, these moments are few and far between the hollow sequences that either take place in Marwen or involve the fictional town's residents coming to life in Mark's mind.
Speaking of "The Women of Marwen": the film boasts an impressively diverse cast of acclaimed character actresses, with names like Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, and Gwendoline Christie playing the various women in Mark's life. It seems like Welcome to Marwen was intended to be something of a tribute to not only the women who helped Mark, but also (on a meta level) the women who've inspired and supported Zemeckis over the years. While the supporting cast is sturdy across the board, the film just doesn't give them a whole lot to do (either in the real-world or in Marwen) and their characters come off feeling one-note or two-dimensional for it. That's to mention nothing of the scene where Zemeckis' real-life wife, Leslie Zemeckis, makes a cameo that's meant to seem playfully risqué, but mostly comes off feeling awkward.
Altogether, Welcome to Marwen is a disappointing step back for Zemeckis after the string of respectable live-action dramas (Flight, The Walk, Allied) he's made following his (arguably, ill-conceived) mo-cap filmmaking phase during the 2000s. While some might find the film more uplifting than others and/or be forgiving of its flaws in light of its aspirations, other moviegoers are probably best off checking out Malmberg's Marwencol documentary to learn more about the real Mark Hogancamp's story. With so many better options to choose from in theaters this month, there's all the more reason to skip watching this one on the big screen and write it off as 2018's own late-December misfire.
Welcome to Marwen is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 116 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language.
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- Welcome to Marwen (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018