The fact that Universal Pictures has chosen to release Robert Zemeckis's Welcome to Marwen on the weekend before Christmas tells you an awful lot about their marketing approach to the film. By the time this review is being written, their instincts have been proven wrong with the film snagging an opening weekend record low for both Zemeckis and Carell for the $39 million film that appears to have little chance of recouping anything close to its production costs unless it manages to find a better global audience.
That seems doubtful.
Based on the 2010 award-winning documentary Marwencol, Welcome to Marwen tells the true story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), a Navy vet whose real trauma began on April 8, 2000 just outside a Kingston, New York bar when his own self-confession of cross-dressing tendencies, specifically women's shoes and nylons, led a group of five men to viciously beat him nearly to death and in a coma for nine days and hospitalized for 40 days. While Hogancamp ultimately survived the attack, he was left with a severe traumatic brain injury that stripped away the memories of his adult life and how to live it. Forced to start over emotionally and physically, Hogancamp was saddled with a significant case of PTSD that soon become too much for his state-sponsored rehab therapies that ran out far before any resolution was reached.
This is when Hogancamp began creating Marwencol, a 1:6 scale World War II town set in Belgium that he populated with dolls representing himself, friends, neighbors and, yes, even the five men who'd nearly killed him.
The documentary upon which Welcome to Marwen is based is considered by many to be one of the best documentaries ever made, a modestly budgeted effort that beautifully captures, with intelligence and dignity and innocent curiosity, the truth behind Hogancamp and the creation of Marwencol. It's a nearly perfect film that cost a mere $38,000 to make yet tells the story in a way that will linger in your heart and mind for years to follow.
It seems as if Welcome to Marwen, on the other hand, struggles to tell its story even gifted with a nearly full-on $39 million higher production budget and the further gift of a nearly all-star cast of A and B-listers led by the immensely likable and popular Steve Carell. While Welcome to Marwen could have been an appropriate holiday release, the truth is that as filmed by the immensely talented yet frequently chaotic Robert Zemeckis it's a fish out of water film that had zero chances of snagging any spotlight during a crowded holiday weekend filled with the likes of Aquaman, Bumblebee, and Mary Poppins Returns. It didn't help that Universal appeared to have zero clue how to market the film, a Lars and the Real Girl styled motion picture dressed up to look like inspirational holiday fare.
The sad thing is that Welcome to Marwen, while far from a masterpiece, is actually a pretty decent film. Carell does terrific work here, though Zemeckis's motion capture efforts continue to be more fascinating than effective and the film itself is far too curious of a beast to ever really register as the inspirational film that it seemingly wants to be.
Everyone involved deserves some credit for not stripping away Hogancamp's rough edges, the women's shoe curiosity an essential component to his character and everything else that unfolds. However, even with a PG-13 rating such a storyline pretty much takes Welcome to Marwen out of the realm of family motion picture unless your Elf on the Shelf has gone the direction that my rather demented little elf has gone.
While it may seem as if I'm being harsh on Zemeckis, the truth is it's difficult to imagine any other filmmaker even approaching the multiple layers of this involving yet multi-layered story. The motion capture, while not always effective, is a natural way to bring to life Hogancamp's use of Marwencol as a form of art therapy and revenge against his assailants. When Welcome to Marwen is successful it's often incredibly successful, yet there are simply far too many times when it lacks the power and impact of the already nearly perfect documentary that told the story more fully and more effectively.
As one might expect, the story itself is somewhat condensed here with the script, co-written by Zemeckis with Caroline Thompson, breezily saunters through Hogancamp's court encounter with his attackers, his growing reputation as an artist, and the introduction into his life of Nicol (Leslie Mann), an across-the-street neighbor with an abusive ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson) and an unnecessary truth that she's more a composite character to move the film along. If you know this story at all, you also know that Hogancamp's Marwencol includes recreations of several other rather badass women whose presence seemingly helped to inspire his healing yet. This is where Welcome to Marwen is far less successful than a film like Lars and the Real Girl, Marwen's approach more objectifying the very women whom we are told inspired, protected, and advocated for Hogancamp along the way. The performances by the likes of Mann, Merritt Wever, Eiza Gonzalez, Janelle Monae, and even Leslie Zemeckis are all perfectly fine - it's the way their characters are constructed that occasionally presents a problem that Welcome to Marwen never solves.
Presented to critics as a potential awards contender early in awards season, the awards season buzz quickly died down as reviews started to pour in and it became apparent that Welcome to Marwen would serve as the awards season's cinematic curiosity rather than as a serious contender. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, at least not if marketed correctly, but it appears that Carell's third tremendous performance of the year alongside Vice, also one of the year's most overrated films, and Beautiful Boy, are all destined to cement his cred as a dramatic actor while seriously jolting his reputation for being able to open a film.
Welcome to Marwen isn't a great film, but it's a film that deserves a little more love than it's getting and going to get this holiday season. It's a rather bold cinematic experiment, a not entirely successful one, that is admirable in its artistry and still more than a little inspiring in its storytelling. When you've satisfied yourself with the box-office blockbusters and the awards season contenders, here's hoping you'll circle back and pay some attention to this flawed yet still feel good gem.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic