Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Neil Jackson
Screenplay: Caroline Thompson, Robert Zemeckis
116 mins. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language.
I look forward to every film Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Allied) makes. The man is always a captivating storyteller who brims with ambition and pushes the boundaries with every time he steps behind a camera. Ever since I saw the first trailer for Welcome to Marwen, I felt that this was another chance he had to push himself further. The struggle for the film, based on true events, is that it can’t seem to translate to the big screen in a wholly appealing and accessible way.
Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell, Beautiful Boy, TV’s The Office) is struggling. He’s a man with a secret that makes some people not like him. When he is beaten within an inch of his life by some scumbags, he is unable to cope with his memory loss, his physical and emotional pain, his anxiety, and his depression. So he creates a world, Marwen, where he imagines himself as World War II Captain Mark “Hoagie” Hogancamp and all the women in his life as kick-ass soldiers, it helps. Enter new next-door neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann, Knocked Up, Blockers), an attractive and friendly human who takes to Mark well and finds him to be a really interesting person. When Mark designs a figure in Marwen after Nicol, he finds that she helps him to be the person he needs to be to defeat his demons.
When Welcome to Marwen works, it works really well. When the film misses the mark, it misses it hard, so let’s unwrap this thing, firstly Steve Carell. Carell is becoming such a prolific and nuanced actor and he excites me with every new project he signs on for. Marwen is no different. His portrayal of Hogancamp is really incredible, and he accesses portions of anxiety and depression very nicely. His performance really highlights that sometimes, anxiety and depression manifest themselves in different ways.
Though Leslie Mann does great work as Nicol, I really don’t like where they take her character, especially with where she ends up. The ending of Nicol’s arc is really odd and it kind of thuds the movie. It feels like there isn’t anything for her character to do in the latter half of the film, but there’s a better way to wrap up her character.
The rest of the women of Marwen all have nice performance work, but I didn’t get the chance to connect with many of them. Gwendoline Christie (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Darkest Minds) plays Anna, Mark’s social worker. She gets one scene, but we are asked to connect with her action-figure avatar. Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures, Moonlight) plays Julie, his physical therapist, and it seems on the surface that we will get some time with her, but she barely plays a role outside of, again, her action-figure avatar. Eiza Gonzalez (Baby Driver, TV’s From Dusk Till Dawn) is Caralala, a co-worker of Mark’s at a local pub and grill, and she gets more screentime than the rest, but she isn’t a fully-realized character.
It’s too bad that we don’t have much characterization with the women of Marwen because the sequences in Marwen are really interesting and layered. Again, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The visual palate of the Marwen stuff is great. I was worried that these figures wouldn’t get the emotion and look right and the audience would be stranded with this fake-looking character that’s supposed to look fake and real. It’s an odd problem to have. Thankfully, I never stepped out of the film during these sequences outside of a really odd Back to the Future reference that crashes and burns near the end of the film.
The Marwen sequences struggle with the characterization because we don’t get to know these people in real life and therefore cannot see the portions of their Marwen personas that belong to them and the portions that belong to Mark. Each time the Nazis show up, we get a lot of gunfire but no character. I was forced to relay all the characters through Mark’s spectrum.
Welcome to Marwen is hit-and-miss. The fantasy scenes are really interesting and kind of feel like a more-improved attempt at Sucker Punch, where the fantasy is important and has stakes on the film, but the film’s screenplay skips some important moments and includes some really strange stuff. The villain of Marwen, personified by a witch named Deja (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds, In the Fade) really felt out of place. I wanted to like the movie so bad, and I did enjoy myself more than most, but it’s frustrating when it stumbles. It is Carell’s intense performance that kept me going and invested throughout, and he deserves more recognition than he gets.
-Kyle A. Goethe
For my review of Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, click here.
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