Sometimes a film is such a train wreck, a misguided screw-up of such epic proportions, that you can’t help but stare in amazement.
“Welcome to Marwen” is the latest film from director Robert Zemeckis, based on the 2010 documentary “Marwencol.” The film, inspired by a true story, follows Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) who is beaten within in inch of his life and loses all memory of his previous life. In order to cope, he creates a village for dolls, who are based on women he knows in real life. Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis and Neil Jackson also star.
So this is a real film, with a real trailer and everything, and every time the trailer played before something in the last few months I would lean over to whoever I was with and say “I just can’t.” It looked so cheesy, faux-inspiring and emotionally manipulative, and just gave off the “this thing is a mess” vibe. And it’s true, this film is all of those things, but I enjoyed how awful it is(?) Let me explain.
I love Steve Carell, I have for years as I am an “Office” mega-fan. His 2018 filmography has been a busy one, as he starred as the father of a drug-addicted Timothée Chalamet in “Beautiful Boy,” as Donald Rumsfeld in “Vice” and now as a man with PTSD who takes photos of dolls in “Marwen.” None of these films are very good but none are Carell’s fault. Here, he gets to cry and get stressed and also does some motion-capture work (more on that in a second) and it is far from a bad performance. Some of the cast, namely the ever-charming Janelle Monáe, are solid but do feel underused.
There are quite a few bad performances, however, namely by Diane Kruger as a German witch (yup) and some over-acting Nazis. On more than one occasion there is such a joke of a line delivery that my friend and I slowly turned to each other with a “wtf is happening” glance. The script doesn’t do anyone any favors, with baffling lines such as Leslie Mann telling Steve Carell’s doll character “it’s a beautiful moon” and he responds “so are you.” Like, what. She’s a beautiful moon? What is happening?
Robert Zemeckis is a staple in the history of Hollywood, pioneering special effects in masterpieces like “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Forrest Gump,” and leading the frontier in motion-capture works with the likes of “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol.” Here, he has his cast put on the tennis ball suits and if for nothing else, that aspect of “Marwen” is undeniably impressive. As the dolls come to life and reenact WWII battles and visualize Hogancamp’s pain, it’s clearly animated but the little facial twitches from the motion-capture make you sometimes have to double-take.
The plot is just so, ironically, lifeless and things just kind of move along at a beat-by-beat pace (Mark’s dolls save him from Nazis, real-life Mark has an emotional breakdown and talks with Mann, rinse, repeat) that it makes it hard to get drawn into Zemeckis’ world. On multiple, *multiple* occasions my friend and I found ourselves rolling our eyes or staring at the screen in disbelief, because nothing was making sense and/or it was just so dumb.
And yet, through it all, I couldn’t look away from what was happening. This is the type of bad movie that could only be made by a master filmmaker. Zemeckis has never slept-walked through a film and here it is clear he had an ambitious vision and wanted to play with his mo-cap toys, but his script does him no favors. There are some impressive long-takes and sweeping cinematography, and besides the motion-capture the film was mostly shot on a soundstage with bluescreen but you couldn’t tell from just watching the film.
I wouldn’t say “Welcome to Marwen” is so-bad-it’s-good, but it certainly is one of those films that you can enjoy in its absurdity. There are some unintentionally funny moments, some ludicrous shootouts and a sense of bombastic failure that hangs over the entire film. It is the worst movie that Carell and Zemeckis have ever made, yet at the same time it is the most brilliant. I left baffled yet oddly satisfied, as with last year’s “The Book of Henry.” I recommend you stay far away from this film out of respect to those involved but at the same time you need to see it t believe it. It’s just weird.
Critic’s Grade: C