Any career lasting around 40 years will have its ups and downs. Robert Zemeckis has had plenty: his purple period was the late 80s and mid 90s with Oscar winners Forrest Gump and Back To The Future, followed by ventures into performance capture with Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007), long before anybody was taking it really seriously. Those were the days when it seemed he could do no wrong. Now, however, he’s hit a run of bad form: neither The Walk (2015) or star studded WWII drama Allied (2016) captured the public imagination and, judging from its performance so far in the States, his latest, Welcome To Marwen, is heading for an even more ignominious fate – a projected loss in the region of £50 million.
Yet on the face of it, this is a story with some dramatic potential. Zemeckis was inspired to make the film after stumbling across the documentary, Village Of The Dolls, which traced the story of artist Mark Hogencamp who was brutally attacked by local thugs, lost most of his recent memory and, unable to work or afford medical care, created a model village populated by dolls based on his real life friends. It became his own personal form of therapy, allowing him to act out and come to terms with what had happened to him. Welcome To Marwen takes us on much the same journey, showing the severity of Hogencamp’s PTSD, his relationships with the various women in his life and re-constructing the stories he creates in the village involving the dolls and eternal hero, American soldier Hogey.
It’s not an easy sell. With its complex and many themes, this is a story that doesn’t fit into any neatly defined category and you can’t help but sense that Zemeckis himself recognised this. So the end result is a watered down version of the true story, one that comes across as a fable on friendship and little else. The bigger issues are either touched on in the most superficial of ways or simply ignored. The fact that Hogancamp had to resort to his DIY form of therapy because he couldn’t afford the medical bills is mentioned in passing, yet it’s something that would have given the film a louder voice. A missed opportunity.
Zemeckis is also back on his familiar performance capture territory and, in terms of depicting the fantasy element of the narrative, it’s an approach that makes perfect sense. But the film also suffers from one of his other tendencies as a director and writer. Sentiment of the cloying kind. The true story behind the film is both tragic and inspirational, one that shows the results of the worst and best sides of human nature. We get glimpses of that, partly through Mark’s imaginary world, but the film opts for the easy, nay facile, option of concentrating on whether or not he gets the girl – the same girl in Marwen and in reality. Subjects like the treatment of mental illness and attitudes to those with less than conventional lifestyles, among others, are treated superficially. Another missed opportunity.
Steve Carell is it’s biggest plus point, one of those rare actors who can make the average more than watchable. In his first film of January 2019 (Beautiful Boy and Vice are next), he’s a great choice for Hogancamp, having carved out a niche for himself in playing sympathetic, often vulnerable, men. He’s hardly ever off the screen, either as Mark or Hogey, but even his performance can’t strip the film of its sugar coating or make it less of a disappointment. The welcome for Marwen is little more than lukewarm.
Freda Cooper | [rating=2]
Drama, Romance, Biography | UK, 1 January (2019) | Universal Pictures | Dir. Robert Zemeckis | Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monae, Merritt Wever, Diane Kruger.