After finally going out my way to watch director Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen a year after its release in theaters, I can now see how nobody is talking about it since it doesn’t leave any major impressions from a story that I would believe won’t leave people wanting more. But I can also see why this didn’t make an impact at the box office in a crowded holiday season.
What’s the Story: In the early 2000s, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) became the victim of a brutal assault outside of a bar by four men, leading it to be considered a hate crime and losing his memory before the events of the incident. In coping with the fact he has PTSD from it, he channels his pain in creating a miniature Belgian town named Marwen in his backyard filled with dolls, including his alter ego Captain Hogie, a WWII fighter pilot.
Sometimes I feel like a director like Robert Zemeckis doesn’t get enough credit for having a creative mind whenever there is a movie in front of him. Sure, he’s the reason Back to the Future is one of, if not, my favorite movie of all-time, but let’s not forget he provided us with other classics like Cast Away or Forrest Gump. While getting back in the game with his live-action movies after his motion-capture days, the only one that’s the most forgettable that he ever did was Allied in 2016. This was a movie I was curious to see when it came out, but I didn’t have time during my Christmas break. That and the fact I didn’t hear a lot of swell things about it. Unfortunately, Welcome to Marwen is one of the director’s weakest efforts in a while.
The trailers made it look like this story sounds fascinating when you start to learn more about finding out this is a coping mechanism delving into photography since he’s not able to draw anymore. The marketing said a true story inspired this, but I didn’t know there’s already a 2010 documentary Jeff Malmberg called Marwencol that’s central subject is on Hogancamp. Oddly enough, I would rather watch that than this. Zemeckis usually brings the magic to his films, but in this case, that wasn’t this sense of fulfillment throughout two hours. His direction felt weak to me.
This also has a bunch of talented people giving it their all in their respective performances that would’ve worked better with a screenplay that suited them better. Carell in the main lead gave a performance that was perfectly fine. In one of his dramatic roles, my problem is that I didn’t think he was the right fit to portray this man. Who could’ve done it better? I couldn’t understand why he didn’t grab when carrying this movie to the best of his advantage. I enjoyed the chemistry between Carrell and Leslie Mann, who plays his new neighbor across the street, Nicol.
You also have the actress who are involved in his doll fantasies: The Women of Marwen. They consist of Merritt Wever as Roberta, Eiza González as Carlala, Janelle Monáe as Julie, Gwendoline Christie as Anna and Leslie Zemeckis, Robert’s wife, as Suzette, his favorite adult film star. They represent the ones who are important in Mark’s life, and besides only two of them, they aren’t developed when they’re in doll form for us to remotely care. Diane Kruger provides the voice of the doll Deja Thoris, the Belgian witch of Marwen, who I honestly realized it was her around 90 minutes in. For me, that was the moment I felt bad for her.
But the thing that plagued Welcome to Marwen from being a winner is having an inconsistent tone that doesn’t exactly mesh right with what the storytelling is hoping to convey. Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands)’s screenplay just didn’t know what kind of story this wants to be in the long run. As much as the visual effects for the animated sequences are impressive enough, especially having the doll versions look exactly like them in the facial features, a lot of them occur in the film, and it doesn’t feel right when it cuts back to the real world and what’s happening with Marwen in the process. Because of that, the world he created wasn’t interesting when it goes to that mode for the third time.
That’s ultimately because the fantasies in this made-up world with the dolls didn’t drive the narrative forward, in my opinion, when it tries to be either funny or action-packed with machine guns. There’s this one sequence in a courtroom that came out of left field and just became a different movie all of a sudden, even for a PG-13. Then Nicol’s ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson) shows up twice and is never seen again and that storyline was dropped quickly.
I was hoping to watch this with this feeling of enjoying life at every minute. Not in here since it turned out to be quite a boring movie in the first act and you start to wonder if there’s anything special will occur. Since there was no sense of caring how it all comes about, this is emotionally deprived of not having any moment of having us care about what’s been dealing with our main character. I get what this was trying to gain with having a character trying to pull through the struggles he’d faced by using the skills he has to be useful to him and everyone around him. This is not the fault of what the real Mark Hogancamp went through; he was beaten up by cruel people who should rot in prison, but this dramatization of the true story isn’t something that will leave a lasting impression when it’s all over. There was no clear focus on tackling Mark’s story but taking the attention way with the world that didn’t make it out as uninteresting.
Compelling as this tried to be and the well-meaning of its performances, Welcome to Marwen missed the mark and sadly didn’t convey enough offer to be the heartfelt drama we all were expecting it to be when there’s a fantastic story hidden somewhere. I also noticed this is the second time the director has made a movie based on a documentary, the other being 2015’s The Walk. Between this or The Walk, as much as the latter has issues, I would rather watch that. Even after watching this, I’m still in disbelief about how Robert Zemeckis couldn’t make this into one of the most joyful experiences for anyone to see back in 2018, there’s nothing left to say except disappointed.