Welcome to Marwen – Spoiler-Free Movie Review

About a couple weeks ago, I decried The Mule as being the most disappointing movie of 2018 – at least from where I’m standing – for a multitude of reasons. It was directed by Clint Eastwood, had him starring in his first role in seven years, and promised a dour tone befitting of his talents. Alas, it was still bad, perhaps signaling the tailspin ending of his career as he makes a home in mediocrity. And naturally, I was pretty ready to give it the ole stamp of disapproval, officially marking it the most disappointing of the year, I not expecting to have another one top it for that dishonor in the next seventeen days. Dear god, how woefully wrong I was. Now, I’ll admit, there wasn’t a whole lot of hype driving Welcome to Marwen to begin with. It has kind of a weird premise, and was released against the likes of Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns, and Bumblebee, near unbeatable odds. Yet I looked forward to it more than I did any of the above, thinking it to be the unique holiday experience I was looking for. After all, it was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who I had hoped would again be channeling his inner Forrest Gump to deliver this tonally similar character drama. It stars Steve Carell, who’s been having something of a big-screen dramatic renaissance ever since he left The Office. And it showcases a quirky yet polished action-figure fantasy angle to convey the thematics. And yet we somehow ended up with one of the flattest, tonally disparate, inconsistent dramedies in recent memory. Yeah, the setup is kind of silly, but I was ready to cheer along for this true-story tale of healing and expression, provided it could stand pat against the temptation of creative indulgence. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, and what we’re left with is a mess of a film that borders on the objective side of criticism. Thankfully, next to no one will know how terrible it is, as it stands to lose a big chunk of change for Universal in the process. I only wish I hadn’t contributed to their cause, not in the slightest.

In Welcome to Marwen, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) is recovering from a brutal beating at the hands of neo-nazis that saw every memory he ever had get kicked out of his head. Plagued with PTSD and anxiety, Mark takes solace in the fictional town of Marwen, Belgium, a miniature WWII village constructed in and beside his house and populated with a series of dolls meant to represent himself and the various women who have helped him crawl out of the void of despair. There’s his friend Roberta (Merritt Weaver), physical therapist Julie (Janelle Monáe), coworker Carlala (Eiza González), and caretaker Anna (Gwendoline Christie), but it’s the arrival of incoming neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) that is set to bring significant change to Mark’s life and the dynamic of Marwen. As their friendship and his love for her grows, Mark will have to find the strength to confront his attackers once again if they are to be given the sentencing they deserve.

Before we ride too far into Negative Town, let me just recognize the lone bright spot here: Steve Carell. It’s actually a serious shame that the film itself is a steaming pile of ox feces, because Carell gives a genuinely heartbreaking performance as the real-life Hogancamp. Granted, the scripted material and dialogue are hokey and contrived to say the least, but somehow he’s able to inject them with a level of humanity and pathos that’s required of it. However, sometimes you just can’t overcome a poorly written story. Such is the same for the quintet of supporting actresses, namely Leslie Mann, who has never looked more lost in a production. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking her as a performer, but it’s practically palpable just how evident it was to her and those around her that they were trapped in a directionless feature.

And speaking of the root word “direction,” Robert Zemeckis turns in one of his weakest efforts to date, somehow lacking that whimsical style that is rife in his early work like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Too often do shots last much longer than they need to, virtually sucking any emotionality out of any given scene through sheer ennui. I’ll admit, I don’t know what went on in that editing room, but someone didn’t do their job and step in when something was visibly awry.

If you know Zemeckis’s filmography, you’ll know that he likes to blend reality with computer animation quite a bit. In fact, that’s pretty much all he did for the bulk of the 2000’s, with The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol coming out back-to-back-to-back. So it’s easy to see why he would be attracted to this project. And on a technical level, it achieves its purpose, able to ground the actors to the set while still being able to build the fantasy world of Marwen around them to the point that they appear doll-like. And even though it mostly works, the facial expressions coming through in its hammy nature, it’s the transition between the material world and the one that Mark has conjured in his head that is the movie’s biggest crutch. On its own, the Marwen setting might have actually amounted to something, but tacked on to the rest of these all-too sobering real-life thematics, it can’t help but come across as hokey and farfetched. Particularly in the inclusion of Diane Kruger’s character, who technically wasn’t revealed in any of the marketing, so I guess I won’t spoil that save for saying that every time she appeared onscreen I was instantly sucked out of the story.

Bottom line: don’t waste your time on Welcome to Marwen. While it has a worthwhile true story at the heart of it, its disparate tone and technical shortcomings will turn off just about every viewer. In short, learn from my mistake, as I should have trusted the critics when I made the split-second decision to see this over The Favourite. God, I’m such an idiot.

Final Score: 2/10

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