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Welcome To Marwen
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by Jay Seaver

"Zemeckis's whole career has been leading to this, for better or worse."
3 stars

I swear, this movie is Robert Zemeckis trolling every one of us who has grumbled about the latter portion of his career and how we wish he'd do more of the sort of comedic fantasy that made him his name. Instead, "Welcome to Marwen" not only seems to be a compilation of every questionable choice he's made since "Contact", but the climax practically taunts you with the reminder that, back in the 1980s, he made a damn near perfect movie. This doesn't get close to that high-water mark, but it may also be the most memorable thing Zemeckis has done in a good long time.

Inspired by the documentary Marwencol and the true story behind it, the film focuses on a month or so just a couple of years after Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was beaten nearly to death for talking about his penchant for wearing high-heeled shoes while drunk. The attack not only left him with almost no memory of his old life, but destroyed the illustrator's ability to draw, though a new project - a 1:6 scale circa-WWII Belgian village in his backyard, populated by army and fashion dolls - serves as both a creative outlet and a sort of art therapy. An exhibition of his photographs of this setting is about to open, but first his case's prosecutor (Conrad Coates) would like him to read a victim impact statement at the sentencing of his attackers. On top of that, a new neighbor has just moved in, and he feels an immediate spark when he meets Nicol (Leslie Mann).

Marwencol is not the first acclaimed documentary that Zemeckis has adapted into a dramatic feature, and as with The Walk, the idea seems to be to get the audience to directly experience something that the documentary by its nature finds just out of reach, with the gamble being that the audience's awareness of the artifice, compared to the documentary subjects' lack of such. It's risky but has potential - those who saw The Walk in Imax 3D wound up getting more than a less-charming Man on Wire - but his means for getting into Hogancamp's head is animating the dolls with the motion-captured CGI which had many associating his work in the Aughts with dead-eyed homunculi. Pair these uncertain choices with a script (by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson) that almost immediately gets off on the wrong foot and makes more odd leaps than can really be explained by being from Mark's wobbly perspective, with dialogue that seems anachronistic or patronizing, and that's before the obvious music selections. The material with "Dejah Thoris" (voice of Diane Kruger), the witch doll which seems to sneak into his photos unbidden never quite gets to the point where it makes sense.

The hell of it is, Zemeckis is too good a director for it all of this to be a total bust. He pays off the creepy, cringey aspects of the script in a way that shows impressive self-awareness without becoming meta or too proud of how the movie strings the audience along. He uses the uncanny-valley issues that had people recoiling from his animated movies to good effect here, allowing the characters' plastic doppelgangers. He spends enough time hitting things square on the nose to make the movie feel amateurish at times but about 50% of the time it's also a kind of honest simplicity and reminder that Hogie is damaged in ways that most of us can barely imagine being.

And Steve Carell is impressively on point with that. His Mark/Hogie is weird and uncomfortable but also in a tricky zone where Mark is right on the edge of eliciting sympathy and pity, slowed and messed up without a lot of mugging or excessive subtlety, while "Cap'n Hogie" is very much his crude fantasy of himself, just enough over a line to remind the audience that this guy's id was kind of off-kilter to begin with and he's not a complete saint. It's a performance that can't always dance around the script's tendency to boldface everything, but he does his level best. He's ably supported by Merritt Wever as his friend at the hobby shop and Leslie Mann as the almost inhumanly friendly new neighbor. Mann gets the most awkward bits of the script to work with, but handles her most important scene with a truly impressive deftness that extends to her character.

"Welcome to Marwen" isn't, on the whole, a good movie, but if it fails, it fails as a series of near-misses on ambitious attempts to tell a tricky story visually, rather than the disaster it initially appears to be. It's an interesting, singular mess, better than a lot of Zemeckis's forgettable recent work.

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originally posted: 01/01/19 14:54:59
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User Comments

1/01/19 Louise (the fake one) Robert Zemeckis is such a ludicrously over-rated film-maker. 1 stars
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  21-Dec-2018 (PG-13)
  DVD: 09-Apr-2019

  01-Jan-2019 (12A)

  10-Jan-2019 (M)
  DVD: 09-Apr-2019

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