Robert Zemeckis is a storied director with a wonderful reputation for enjoyable and uplifting movies that also contain in them a deeper more personal tale of overcoming adversity. Forest Gump is one of my favorite movies because of its fantastical portrayal of a man who makes the best of his life and doesn’t complain about the deck he’s been dealt. Cast Away is a great tale of learning to use your time for family and loved ones instead of work because you never know when it could all be gone.
On paper, Welcome to Marwen should be about coping with tragedy and how leaning on your network of friends and family will help you through anything. Unfortunately, Marwen misses this mark and instead spends altogether too much time in a fantasy world that tries to bring levity to a situation where it doesn’t belong.
Welcome to Marwen
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Release Date: December 21, 2018
In Welcome to Marwen, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) builds a miniature model of a fictional World War II town called Marwen to help him try to cope with injuries he received years earlier at the hands of Neo-Nazis. In the town, Captain Hogie and a band of female warriors who represent the women who have helped Hogancamp recover from his attack wage war against an endless horde of resurrected Nazi figures.
Welcome to Marwen uses CGI animated figures to show the daily activities of the fictional town and it’s here where Zemeckis boarded the wrong train. The bulk of the movie’s runtime is dedicated to the town of Marwen with overly drawn out scenes of figures shooting each other, torturing enemies, getting impaled, and even getting stripped naked. The whole affair is surprisingly violent for a PG-13 movie, owing I suppose to the fact that the violence is all perpetrated on figures. Because it’s funny when toys get split in half, right?
In the real world though, Hogancamp is struggling with pain pill addiction as well as a very believable sense of disconnect from the outside world. He is visited by a social worker once a month, works at the bar where he was attacked, and collects more figures for his collection from a local hobby store. Despite the advances of the hobby store owner (Merritt Wever), Mark makes excuses as to why he can’t associate with people and remains isolated.
Enter Nicol (Leslie Mann), Mark’s new next-door neighbor with her own obsessions and underlying tragedies that Mark sees as connecting traits. There’s an awkward disjointed relationship here that had some particularly cringe-worthy moments as Mark begins to act out his fantasies with Nicol through the figures. It all gets very creepy, but there are hints that this is just Mark’s thing since the accident so his friends go along.
It’s little hints like that that make the real world feel fleshed out and alive, which only makes the fact that we spend so little time there much more painful. Somewhere along the way, it feels like Zemeckis lost the narrative and fell into Marwen just like Hogancamp does.
While I won’t go into details here for those that want to see it, I will say that the resolution at the end is one of the worst deus ex machinas I’ve ever seen in my life. As it happened I was wondering to myself “why is this happening now?” Then before I knew it, everything was being wrapped up in a neat little bow. Roll credits, and up the house lights.
The biggest thing that stuck out to me as I left was that it felt like Zemeckis was out of his league with this movie. I’m an advocate who believes anything can be funny if done right, but with this movie’s heavy subject matter any attempt at comedy has to be taken delicately. It isn’t. Zemeckis instead uses the figures of Marwen for crude and juvenile comedic effects and it just feels like any other director could have done this better. The story is filled with pain and agony and you’re trying to show me a scene where a figure gets her shirt ripped off to reveal a nipple-less chest? Come on now, don’t insult me or mental health care like that.
It’s one giant miss at an attempt to tell the story of one man’s pain that he didn’t deserve to feel and how he coped with it. It’s sad really because Carell has the capacity for so much more, as does this story, but everything is squandered in this mess of a movie that thinks it’s an action blockbuster. Leave this figure on the shelf.