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Sunday, December 23, 2018

Welcome to Marwen

Here is a movie of stunning awfulness, one that only truly talented filmmakers could achieve.  Lesser talent would be too afraid to go this far off the edge as director Robert Zemeckis does.  Welcome to Marwen is based on the life of New York artist Mark Hogancamp, who came into acclaim in the art world with his elaborate World War II photos using dolls and models.  It's a touching story, and it even inspired a documentary.  What Zemeckis does with his take is bury the heart and emotion with a lot of pointless CG fantasy sequences where the dolls come to life, and reenact war atrocities and bloody gun battles.  It's about as appealing as watching a CG Ken and Barbie reenact the Battle of Normandy.

I actually have to wonder if Zemeckis (who also co-wrote the screenplay) really wanted to tell this story, as he instead seems to largely be making a tribute to his past films here.  Just like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the movie mixes live action with animation.  Just like his 2015 film The Walk, it's a "true story" dramatization that was told much better in a documentary.  Just like the numerous motion capture films he made in the 2000s (like The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol), the animation on display here is kind of lifeless and creepy.  Heck, the guy even throws in a Back to the Future reference here.  It's a total mess of a film, and one that had me watching in silent disbelief.  When it was over, I actually had to question what I had just seen.  This is not only the worst movie Zemeckis has made, but it's also the worst that Steve Carell (who plays Mark in the film) has been involved with.

To be perfectly fair, Carell's performance is one of the few things that works here.  He plays Mark as a frightened introvert who lost all of his memories after he was attacked by some homophobic thugs.  Mark was drunk one night, and happened to admit that he occasionally likes to wear women's shoes.  Hearing this, the thugs beat him within an inch of his life.  He's recovered physically, but mentally, he's a blank slate.  He sees signs and photos that he was married once, and that he used to draw World War II pictures, but he does not recognize any of these elements of his own life.  He's lost the ability to draw, so he now stages elaborate War-themed photos made out of models that he builds himself and the vintage dolls that he collects.  He's created a fictional battle-weary Belgium town called Marwen in his own front yard in order to stage his photos.

We learn that the name "Marwen" comes from a combination of his first name, Mark, and the name of the woman who saved his life the night he was attacked, Wendy.  Oddly enough, Wendy does not actually play a role in the film, despite her having a big impact on Mark's life.  The town that he has created is populated by Captain Hoagie, who is modeled after Mark, and a team of women who are all based on women who have helped Mark along the way.  The movie frequently cuts to fantasy sequences where the dolls are brought to live with expensive, but somewhat creepy and stilted, animation.  We see Captain Hoagie and his girls blasting away Nazis, hanging out at the local tavern, and being strung up and tortured by the enemy troops who are constantly invading the town, and don't seem to ever die.  It's all supposed to be a metaphor for Mark being afraid to confront his own pain and the men who did this to him at their upcoming court hearing, but Zemeckis puts so much emphasis on these CG fantasy sequences that they become the focus of the film, rather than Mark's road to emotional recovery.

Welcome to Marwen goes wrong in many ways, but none more so than the fact that we never get a clear picture of just who these women in Mark's life are.  The movie constantly tells us that they have helped him since he was attacked, and we occasionally see a brief glimpse of one of them helping him, like the woman who taught Mark how to walk again.  But, we learn nothing about these women, and just how they impacted him.  We spend so much time with the CG dolls based on them that we never get to know the real women.  The one exception is Nicol (Leslie Mann), Mark's new neighbor who becomes intrigued by his fantasy world.  They start to build a friendship, but even this is stilted with the movie's confused narrative.  We don't really learn much about Nicol, other than she has an abusive ex who stalks her (and plays no part in the movie, not even getting a proper resolution), and that she likes to drink tea. 

That's because Zemeckis really has no personal stakes to the story.  He just wants to play with the technology of the CG fantasy sequences.  That's where his interest lies, and it shows when you realize just how unsatisfying the real world story is.  He never comes close to getting to the heart of the story, or to Mark for that matter.  He also doesn't want to tell the story of his recovery.  He just wants to stage these thrilling battle sequences, and show off what he can do with the animation.  There is not a second of this film that feels heartfelt or honest.  It's simply a misguided attempt to combine a true story with "thrill ride" spectacle filmmaking.  The end result is not just soulless, but kind of unwatchable.

This is one of the most misguided dramas I have seen in a long time.  I can only hope that Zemeckis returns to his senses soon, and recovers from whatever possessed him to make him think this was a workable idea for a film.  Welcome to Marwen is artificial in the extreme, and has no trace of heart or soul to be found.

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