Synopsis: A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process.
Stars: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Eiza Gonzalez, Diane Kruger, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Weaver
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: We’re often asked to provide our instant reactions to movies on our way out of advanced screenings. This can be a good way to get some off the cuff remarks or quick takes to bring back to the studios as to what audiences felt the moment the lights come up and the credits start to roll. I struggle in these moments to come up with two to three sentences that summarize two hours of thoughts, preferring to let the feeling marinate for a while until I can let it flow out here. My overall opinion of the film rarely changes, it just solidifies as my mind works on detailing why I feel the way I feel.
With Welcome to Marwen, I knew leaving the theater it was one of the most troubling movies I’d seen all year but the way the movie nagged and gnawed at me in the days since I saw it was truly something to behold. Hailing from a major studio with a well-liked star and Oscar-winning director, it’s a drastically misguided misfire that has no clue who it’s audience is or how to balance its technically impressive effects with a dramatically inert narrative.
Based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson (The Secret Garden) turn the doc into a narrative feature starring Steve Carrell (Beautiful Boy) as Matt Hoagancamp, an artist recovering from a brutal beating that has found a most unique coping outlet. Creating a WWII-set world of his own in his backyard, he photographs dolls inhabiting his town of Marwen in various adventures featuring Cap’n Hogie, a stand in for Matt himself. While Cap’n Hogie is the bomber jacket wearing tough guy in the group, he often needs to be saved by an assembly of leggy female figures that are modeled after various women in Matt’s own life.
This is where the movie starts to provide some extremely problematic issues it can just never recover from. The real-life women in Matt’s world are his Russian caretaker (Gwendoline Christie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), a war veteran we briefly see in flashbacks (Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures), a friendly worker at his local hobby shop (Merritt Weaver, Signs, by far the best performance in the film), his co-worker at a local diner (Eiza Gonzalez, Jem and the Holograms), and most disconcerting of all, a sexy French maid inspired by a nameless woman Matt sees in an adult film (played by Leslie Zemeckis, the directors real-life wife…yuck). In reality, the women are portrayed as normal human beings but in Matt’s fantasy world their sexuality is heightened, their cleavage is on display, their skits are hiked up to crotch level, and they exist only to serve and protect Cap’n Hoagie’s wishes. Basically, they are sex figurines. Which would be fine if the movie ever acknowledged that this is odd and oddly disrespectful…which it never does.
When Nicol (‘I spell it with no “E” ’) moves in across the street, Matt becomes infatuated by the woman who seems to understand his quirks, especially as it relates to his penchant for wearing women’s high heels. That Matt has a shoe fetish is but one of several of his eccentricities the film introduces only to never fully explore to any kind of satisfactory degree. Though not gay, Matt finds that while wearing a woman’s shoe he can more easily get at the ‘essence’ of women (or, “dames” as he calls them) and, bless her heart, Nicol barely bats at eye when he delivers this corker of a revelation. As played by Leslie Mann (This is 40) Nicol has a restrained charm that suggests she’s put up walls to guard her own emotional sensitivities.
Aside from it’s odious devaluation of nearly every female character that walks across the screen (Christie and Monáe are barely in the film in human form), the movie also has a rather large blind spot when it comes to talking about PTSD and the lasting effects of mental illness. Clearly, Matt is suffering from major mental health problems brought on by his vicious attack and Zemeckis and Thompson don’t seem the slightest bit interested in presenting Matt with any kind of support outside of his made-up world of Marwen. His interactions with people outside of Marwen are either comedic fodder or humiliating emotionally – it’s no wonder he’d rather spend time all alone with his dolls. The one solution presented is in the form of a blue pill medication that no so subtly takes the form of another “doll” named Deja (Diane Kruger) who doesn’t seem to have a real-world counterpart but obviously has a huge hold over Matt’s psyche.
I have absolutely no idea who the audience would be for this movie. It’s not a family film, it’s not a film an older adult audience will find much value in, and it’s certainly not a movie for the mid-range crowd who have a plethora of better choices this holiday season. It literally has no target audience and I am mystified at whoever would have thought this would have made for a good feature film. Carrell seems uncomfortable, and not just in the heels but as this is a Zemeckis film, it’s technical merits are first-rate. Zemeckis is like a dog with a bone where motion-capture animation is concerned but here the technology works well in making Carrell, Mann, Monáe, and company all realistically doll-like when they are in Marwen. It’s a good-looking movie, even if it’s rather ugly on in the inside.