Welcome to Marwen, 2018.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Starring Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Siobhan Williams and Neil Jackson.
A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process.
Welcome to Marwen isn’t merely content to be the worst film of director Robert Zemeckis’ (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) career, it’s also one of the most bafflingly ill-advised projects from any respected auteur in recent times. And remember, Shane Black released The Predator just a few months ago.
Inspired by the hit 2010 documentary Marwencol, Zemeckis’ film takes a CliffsNotes approach to the life and times of Mark Hogancamp (Carell), a man who was near-beaten to death by five men after drunkenly telling them he was a cross-dresser. With brain damage eroding most of his pre-attack memories, Mark copes with the trauma by creating a 1/6-scale replica World War II-era Belgian town, Marwen, in his back yard, populating it with himself and those in his life.
It’s certainly a compelling story and one ripe for the narrative feature treatment, though from its opening animated visualisation of Marwen, complete with a thunderously loud plane crash and hail of gunfire, it becomes clear that this is the wrong type of story for Zemeckis to test out his latest suite of technological wares.
Though the effects are impressive to a point – particularly the photo-realistic if slightly creepy facial recreations of the film’s principal cast as dolls – the visual fidelity is also wildly inconsistent, and Zemeckis inexplicably employs some nauseatingly goofy-looking transitions between live-action and animation. But ultimately, it comes down to tone and intent, and while you can argue that the headache-inducingly loud set-pieces are supposed to place us within Mark’s own traumatised headspace, the result is only slightly less obnoxious and grating with that in mind.
Was there no more elegant way of depicting Mark’s PTSD than through CGI-slathered shootouts? To be totally fair to Zemeckis, visualising Mark’s quasi-art installation in a cinematic way would be incredibly difficult for any filmmaker, but perhaps something less glossy and noisy wouldn’t seem quite so tacky and ill-fitting. Or better yet, just stick with the effortlessly superior 2010 documentary.
Even in its moments removed entirely from the digital chaos, tone continues to be a problem. Mark’s friendship with love interest Nicol (Leslie Mann) is intentionally cringe-worthy at first, but becomes genuinely offputting by film’s end, painting Nicol in a disingenuous light that doesn’t feel remotely earned. At least she resembles an actual character, whereas most of the other women in Mark’s life – especially those played by Janelle Monáe, Eiza González and Gwendoline Christie – are mere footnotes.
The undeniable elephant in the room, though, is the film’s unsurprising yet icky downplaying of the real Mark Hogancamp’s interest in cross-dressing. At first the film seems timid to even discuss the notion of him wearing women’s shoes, and it most often feels like a storytelling obligation that Zemeckis knew he had to include, yet decided to be about as coy and dismissive of as possible. After all, when you’ve got a $50 million movie to peddle to the holiday movie-going crowd, honesty doesn’t have a whole lot of value.
More harmless yet no less bizarre directorial choices also abound elsewhere; pop music is nonchalantly inserted into scenes as though hastily shoved in following poor test screenings, especially The Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You”, which seems to be signalling an upbeat montage only for it to die off about 10 seconds later. The third act meanwhile includes a prolonged and groan-worthy Back to the Future reference, which ends up making the climactic set-piece feel more about Zemeckis himself than Mark’s triumph over his demons.
Steve Carell at least delivers a rock solid performance, albeit one that’s completely wasted on execution this wrong-footed. He doesn’t embarrass himself, which given how loud and exuberant the filmmaking vision is in all of its wrongness, is actually quite remarkable. You can see the seeds of an interesting vehicle for an actor like Carell here, especially given his success in both comedy and drama, yet whatever movie Zemeckis had in his head, it’s likely not the one audiences ended up with.
And though one thoroughly off movie certainly isn’t enough to start the narrative that the legendary director might’ve lost his touch, the end result is baffling enough that he might want to cool it with the CGI-infused high-drama for a little while. Welcome to Marwen is a fascinatingly tone-deaf misfire from Robert Zemeckis rife with peculiar directorial choices, albeit saved from total oblivion by Steve Carell’s well-meaning performance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.