It happens every year: films prematurely destined for greatness eventually arrive into our cineplexes with an almighty thud, typically surrounded by and taunted by the award season players they so desperately wanted to be themselves. Robert Zemeckis‘ Welcome To Marwen bears the burden this year, plodding in the footsteps of Downsizing, Suburbicon and Collateral Beauty (to name just a handful of recent examples) as highly-anticipated but subsequently widely-panned attempts that suffered from rocket-high expectations. But for this drama though, it wasn’t only the preemptive presumption of excellence that weighed it down: it is the poorly-judged and tonally-inconsistent handling of a powerful true-life story.
After a physical assault results in memory erasure, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) turns his pain into art by building and creating a fictional village to ease his trauma. Marwen operates as a cathartic release for his post-traumatic stress disorder, filled with modified dolls resembling people in his everyday life that Mark fantasies are alive are protecting him. As he approaches the court date that will see him come face-to-face with his attackers, Mark’s worlds begin colliding and Marwen comes under attack.
It’s frustrating that Marwen so dreadfully botches Hogancamp’s story because there was a plethora of rich, fruitful content to work with and consider. Unarticulate in its meaning and woeful in its wording, Marwen’s script squanders great potential and visual creativity by uncomfortably executing its true-life story in an increasingly manipulative and tonally-disparate way. By diluting a man’s troubles into broader themes of friendship and community, all but totally ignoring the towering issues that could have made for compelling, important viewing, it diminishes his journey into uninspired musings we have seen countless times before. Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson’s screenplay is a disjointed and wholly misjudged affair, as shallow as it is irresponsible.
Our performers attempt to alleviate the deeper flaws hindering the screenplay, but with so many of the supporting female characters devoid of complexity, it gives us very little to hold on to. Steve Carell cannot determine the tone to land on and so his leading turn messily flits between dramatic and comedic without a natural rhythm or energy emerging. He’s no doubt charming – and the script is at fault for its inability to provide a consistent balance between the sub-genres and tones – but a weighty story, particularly one that means to pay respect to its subject matter, requires (and deserves) more than this. Carell’s rather stranded really and it’s a shame to see him struggling against such woeful material.
While the visuals are something to marvel at, undoubtedly ambitious, but it is greatly disappointing that they are not built around and for a stronger picture. Zemeckis’ direction is benefited by the terrific production design — but the novelty quickly wears off and he’s unable to develop any emotional resonance to support his direction. Scenes set in the real world are bland and the Marwen sequences are intended to feel false, creating an unusual and uneasy indifference and emotional detachment. It essentially works as an extended showreel to exhibit Zemeckis’ directorial creativity, which might work in short burst but fails as a feature-length, working at the expense of the story too.
Welcome To Marwen paints a tragic, complex situation as an uplifting celebration of our differences and its tonally-fractured execution and similarly-afflicted, uncertain lead performance leaves a bitter taste behind. There’s something inherently ugly about the way Welcome To Marwen shies away from the details of the real story, troubling in the way it fabricates and invents freely; it’s as plastic as the dolls that form our protagonist’s imaginary world.