The recent films of Robert Zemeckis have been a bit of a mixed bag. Whilst I enjoyed Flight and have a soft spot for Beowulf, he has become on of those directors who has allowed himself to get too attached to technology, in this case motion capture technology. With Welcome to Marwen, Zemeckis tried to match that technology to a story to replicate the success he had with Forrest Gump. However, he ended up making an overly sentimental, mawkish film.
The film focuses on Mark Hogancamp who, after he was attacked by neo-Nazis after revealing that he’s a crossdresser, loses pretty much every memory of his past life. In helping himself cope with what happened, he creates the town of Marwen in his garden, which is a Belgian village during World War 2. Throughout the film we cut to the story of Marwen, whilst also seeing Mark having to deal with the sentencing of the men who attacked him, an art show for his work, and his feelings for a neighbour of his, Nicol. Now the first issue with the film is the structure, by giving the film multiple ticking clocks, it makes it so the character development for Mark doesn’t work, making it too lopsided and gives the sense of coincidence throughout the film. The film also doesn’t really give us a sense of who Mark Hogancamp is. Some interesting work could have been done with the Marwen scenes to give us an understanding into who he is, but the stuff we do see makes Mark incredibly unlikable and creepy, showing an attitude towards women that just feels wrong, with all the women in the film falling into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. The only time when an attempt is made to connect Marwen to Mark’s real struggles is through a character representing his painkiller addiction, but even then the resolution to that side of the film felt rushed. This all feeds into what feels like a sanitised and mawkish representation of Mark Hogancamp’s story, rather than an honest reflection of who he is. There’s also an issue with the way the film presents disability. As someone who isn’t disabled, I cannot speak with any authority, so I’ll instead direct you to Kristen Lopez’ review, who explains the issues much better than I ever could.
The way the Marwen scenes are integrated into the film meanwhile is a mess. As I said, some good work could have been done for character development here, but all of the scenes fall into the cliches of World War 2 films, and no work is done to create a sense of how Mark would create such a world. There’s even a point that could have been made about how the world reflects Mark’s views on women, himself and violence, but it just doesn’t get enough development. That’s not due to lack of time though. A lot more of the film than I expected took place in the world of Marwen, and since the tonal shift is so jarring, I got taken out of the film with every cut away to Marwen. The personification of Mark’s painkiller addiction meanwhile is pretty confused, going from Mark being aware of the danger it’s causing to ignorant of it in the same scene and a strong point about how it pushed people away who could have helped him just felt rushed.
The performances are pretty bland as well. Steve Carell is clearly trying as Mark Hogancamp, but the way his performance works through the whole film just doesn’t work. It’s the main reason why the film feels too sentimental and mawkish, especially at the end. The female characters meanwhile are completely one-dimensional. In the real world, most of them only get one scene, and the ones that get more scenes are still underdeveloped. It’s a shame as it’s a waste of strong talents like Janelle Monae, Merritt Weaver, Gwendoline Christie and Eiza Gonzalez. The only one who gets any development is Leslie Mann as Nicol, but even then the character development doesn’t work, especially at the end, and I just found the character annoying, although that could be due to me not being a fan of Leslie Mann. Diane Kruger meanwhile is just a full on cartoon character in the film as the representation of Mark’s painkiller addiction, which further pulled me out of the film and didn’t create a true sense of the tragedy of the addiction.
The technical side of the film is a complete mess as well. The motion capture used to create the world of Marwen falls right into the uncanny valley. Every time we see the characters in Marwen they just don’t look natural. Now this could have worked if they were made to look like dolls, but with the facial movements and the designs, too much of the actors comes through to create this feeling. As a result, every time it cut to Marwen I just felt uncomfortable on a purely aesthetic level. Everything else in the film though is exactly what you’d expect from an Oscar bait film, nothing more, nothing less, which is a disappointment for a director as talented as Robert Zemeckis. The only time when it comes alive is a completely out of place reference to Back to the Future, but only as a reminder of how brilliant Back to the Future is.
Overall, Welcome to Marwen is a complete mess. It feels like Zemeckis was more focused on the technology of the film to craft a compelling story or characters, but even then the technology doesn’t work as Zemeckis has once again fallen into the thematic valley. This is a massive disappointment and will probably stand at the weakest film Robert Zemeckis has made.
My Rating: 1.5/5