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Welcome to Marwen Movie Review

Welcome to Marwen (2018) movie poster Welcome to Marwen

Theatrical Release: December 21, 2018 / Running Time: 116 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Robert Zemeckis / Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Caroline Thompson

Cast: Steve Carell (Mark Hogancamp/Cap'n Hogie), Leslie Mann (Nicol), Diane Kruger (Deja Thoris), Merritt Wever (Roberta), Janelle Monαe (GI Julie), Eiza Gonzαlez (Carlala), Gwendoline Christie (Anna), Leslie Zemeckis (Suzette), Neil Jackson (Kurt/Major Meyer), Falk Hentschel (Captain Topf/Louis)

 

Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) is one of the most accomplished directors around. Steve Carell is one of the most likable leading men in demand.
Put them together at Christmastime and you get...one of the worst miscalculations of the year.

Welcome to Marwen is based on a true story, one already detailed in the acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol and one that judging by these results has no business being given the narrative feature film treatment by such respected veterans.

Carell plays Mark Hogancamp, an eccentric New York loner. There are two things that seem to give Mark more joy than anything else in this world. One is women's shoes, which he both collects (over 200 pairs in his closet) and wears. The other is dolls, which he poses in scenes and then photographs.

You might assume from those two facts that Mark is gay. He's not. If anything, he seems too into women or "dames", as he sometimes calls them. But once a group of five men at a bar made the same assumption and nearly beat Mark to death. Recovering from that hate crime has been a challenge for Mark both physically and psychologically. He used to be an artist, but now he can barely write his name. He also remembers nothing of his personal life before the incident.

In "Welcome to Marwen", Steve Carell plays Mark Hogancamp, a victim of a brutal assault who finds comfort in photographing dolls.

The dolls offer him an escape from reality. In Marwen, a small model town he has constructed outside his house, he plays with Cap'n Hogie, a figure that stands as his obvious alter ego, a World War II soldier who's always running into Nazi jerks. Coming to his rescue are a number of women based on actual people from his life. When an attractive woman named Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves into the house directly across the street,
Mark needs only to catch her name and a glimpse before heading to his favorite doll store and buying a redhead that looks just like her.

This being a modern Zemeckis film, it's not much of a surprise that the sequences with dolls come to life with animation of the motion capture variety. Undeterred by the increasing resistance with which his mo capped films including The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol were met, Zemeckis makes extensive use of the medium here with something that looks like stop motion (but in reality is not). At least here there is a reason for the dolls to have a plastic look to them, but in a year full of animation that has been quite inspired both dramatically and stylistically, these bits stand out as being by far the clunkiest work to date in the oeuvre of Zemeckis' ImageMovers production company. Even if the words "uncanny valley" do not spring to mind for you when watching these sequences, you'd be at a loss to defend their worth in terms of storytelling. And yet, Zemeckis keeps returning to such escapist episodes, which find the women dolls randomly baring their breasts and throwing Molotov cocktails at the Nazis who have wronged his plastic doppelganger.

The live-action parts of Marwen are no less problematic. Mark's life is in shambles. Still traumatized by his assault, he is reluctant to answer his lawyer's phone calls, let alone to appear in court for the sentencing of his five assailants. He deflects obvious interest from hobby shop owner Roberta (Merritt Wever), who does inspire one of the women in his world of make believe, while hastily proposing to Nicol simply because she's friendly. Another big demon Mark wrestles with is addiction. While he's given up alcohol since being very inebriated at the time of his attack, he is now hooked on pain pills.

This demon is represented by Marwen's big villain, the blue-haired Deja Thoris (voiced and presumably motion capture performed by a never-seen Diane Kruger). His pain pills are the same color as Deja's hair...get it? That unfortunate metaphor is one of many disappointing features of the screenplay that's credited to Zemeckis and Tim Burton veteran Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas). It's nothing short of flabbergasting that an actor of Carell's caliber would say yes to material that varies between treacle and bad taste. Not that Carell's taste is blameless; he's clearly a sucker for sentimentality (Crazy, Stupid, Love., Dan in Real Life) and lately he appears to be on a mission to win an Oscar. It's one thing for Leonardo DiCaprio to make a string of prestige pictures that were usually at least pretty good. But Carell's picked some underwhelming projects (Battle of the Sexes, Freeheld, and this year's Beautiful Boy) that on the page probably read like an invitation to the Dolby Theatre.

Cap'n Hogie (Steve Carell), Hogancamp's animated alter ego, is consoled by some of the women from his life given the doll treatment.

Zemeckis is a filmmaker well worth trusting. While his biggest hits are probably behind him, he's remained a talented filmmaker, whether people see his movies (Flight) or not (The Walk, Allied). There's a couple of his eighteen previous movies as director I still haven't seen, but I do feel confident in calling Marwen the worst thing he's made to date. It's a film that desperately wants your empathy but does nothing to earn it. It wants you to chuckle at the image of a man wearing woman's shoes but also prop him up a poster child against bigotry. It wants him to combat his demons...by playing with dolls. Even the use of Nazi imagery, which I'm sure exists in the work of the real Hogancamp, feels like manipulative and shameless exploitation. Furthermore, Zemeckis took the closest to a major criticism you could lob at Flight -- the use of on-the-nose licensed music -- and takes it even further, hoping that some nostalgic songs can compensate for what isn't working on screen (spoiler alert: it doesn't).

Opening at the end of the year when the movies are often as good as they get, Welcome to Marwen seems especially bad. While the tough-to-believe reported $39 million budget means Zemeckis likely won't be enduring the commercial failure of his two previous films, I can't imagine a single person being glad they chose to see this instead of the countless options they have to enjoy in theaters over the next few weeks. For that matter, I regret choosing this screening over Bumblebee.

Related Reviews:
Directed by Robert Zemeckis: Allied • The Walk • Flight • A Christmas Carol • Forrest Gump • Who Framed Roger Rabbit • Used Cars
Now in Theaters: Mary Poppins Returns • Vice • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse • Dr. Seuss' The Grinch • Instant Family
Steve Carell: Beautiful Boy • Last Flag Flying • Battle of the Sexes • Cafe Society • The Big Short • Foxcatcher
Steve Carell (continued): Crazy, Stupid, Love. • Dinner for Schmucks • Dan in Real Life • Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Leslie Mann: Funny People • How to Be Single • 17 Again • The Comedian • The Bling Ring
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot • St. Vincent

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Reviewed December 19, 2018.



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