1.5 stars (out of 4)
When Steve Carell hosted Saturday Night Live in November, he neglected to plug Welcome to the Marwen in his monologue. Now I understand why. His new film is gooey dreck that attempts to be a quirky comedy, an earnest drama and a warm-hearted fantasy about the Nazis — and fails mightily at all the above. The entire work is in shambles. If Carell has already forgotten about it, then audiences will surely do the same by the start of 2019.
The actor stars as Mark Hogancamp, a real-life artist who seems like a kind and lovely man. His resilience is impressive. But his story has no business being adapted into a feature-length major motion picture. Mark used to be a renowned war book illustrator and frequent drinker. Then, one night at a bar, he reveals to a bunch of thugs that he likes to wear women’s shoes. They beat him up and leave him for dead. The injuries are devastating. Following the attack, he has no memories of his previous adult life.
In a bid to jog his memory and create a new outlet for himself, he decides to play with dolls. He constructs a miniature World War II village in his home, which he dubs Marwen. This is a special place where Mark depicts himself as a heroic, stiletto-wearing fighter pilot in Belgium named Hogie. Every important woman in his life, including his Russian caretaker (Gwendolyn Christie) and the woman at the toy shop (Merritt Wever) is represented via a doll. Diane Kruger is the Deja, the Belgian witch that can send enemies light years into the future. In each story, the ladies all band together help Hogie destroy the Nazis. When a sweet neighbor named Nicole (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street, she too becomes a doll and the Hogie character falls for her. Then Mark takes professional photographs of his elaborate doll set-ups and develops them and stares at them.
Did I lose you at stiletto-wearing fighter pilot or Belgian witch? Welcome to Marwen is just as disjointed as that plot description suggests, probably more so. Director Robert Zemeckis films each of Mark’s playtime sequences as a movie-within-a-movie, so Carrell and Mann also appear as talking plastic dolls — like a Barbie and Ken with maybe 10 percent more muscle definition and facial expressions. Though these specialized scenes are purported to be imaginative as to coincide with Mark’s healing process, they fall painfully flat. I’m still trying to grasp the image of his harem strutting with machine guns en route to kill the bad guys to the sounds of the ’80s classic “Addicted to Love.”
The flesh-and-blood characters are just as synthetic as their counterparts. Carell, so strong as conniving Donald Rumsfeld in Vice, portrays Mark as a one-dimensional sadsack. We know he’s terrified to face his attackers in court and carries around his dolls like a security blanket. Otherwise, he’s a blank canvas. We care about him only because he’s experienced a trauma. Mann’s underwritten Nicole comes straight out of Hill Valley in 1955. She wants to build a tea house in her suburban back yard, she dresses in bright colors, she’s harassed by a ne’er do well. She also must reject Carrell’s awkward and sudden advances … as any woman in that situation should and would!
For those who don’t know, Zemeckis has directed some of most innovative touchstone films in modern history. Think about Marty McFly’s DeLorean speeding to 88.8 miles per hour in Back to the Future and Tom Hanks meeting all the presidents in Forrest Gump and Hanks (again) rescuing himself off the island in Cast Away and Denzel Washington flying an airplane upside down in Flight. These images are seared into our consciousness. This is his most misguided outing by far. In fact, I’m convinced he chose Welcome to Marwen just for the opportunity to turn his stars into plastic playthings via special effects. There’s no compelling story to grab on to or actual wonder to behold. Just don’t go there.
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