Welcome to Marwen review: 'Steve Carell is excellent - but he works in the service of a flawed and hollow film'
Whatever he’s done since, or might yet do, the movie that Robert Zemeckis will always be best remembered for is Back to the Future. And rightly so, because it was an irresistibly funny and charming time travelling caper that has stood the test of time remarkably well.
After it came Forrest Gump (oh God) and such solid mainstream fare as Cast Away, and What Lies Beneath. But in the early 2000s, Mr. Zemeckis disappeared down a technological rabbit hole from which he’s rarely emerged.
What he was chasing was motion capture, the technique he helped perfect in which actors’ faces and expressions are translated into animated screen characters. He seems to believe it’s the cinematic second coming, and is not alone: in an interview with me last year, Andy Serkis, another keen practitioner, said that motion capture would play “a huge role” in cinema’s future because it allows “any actor to play anything, no matter what your size, or shape”.
Which may very well be true, but thus far motion capture has tended to get in the way of performances, rather than enrich them. Zemeckis’s Christmas Carol was a strange and unsatisfactory beast, neither fish nor fowl, and other early experiments like Beowulf and Polar Express weren’t very nice to look at. In fairness, however, the technology has since been refined, as this very strange new film proves.
Welcome to Marwen is based on the experiences of artist and illustrator Mark Hogancamp, who in the Spring of 2000 was attacked outside a bar in upstate New York and savagely beaten by a group of men he’d been drinking with. They set upon him after he casually mentioned that he liked to wear women’s shoes: when he emerged from a coma, he could remember little of his former life, had crippling injuries and he could no longer draw.
He retreated from the world, and began inventing his own, using dolls and scaled backdrops to create a minutely detailed alternative universe in which his traumas - and fantasies - could be safely replayed. These tableaux had a wartime theme, and one of the dolls was an avatar for himself, a dashing US Army captain surrounded by beautiful Amazonian women who always overcomes insuperable odds to defeat the Nazis. The exquisitely lit photos Hogencamp took of these creations formed an acclaimed series of exhibitions, and led to a 2010 documentary, Marwencol.
This film is partly based on that, and Steve Carell plays Hogancamp, a man adrift and dependant on painkillers who, not surprisingly, has lost all trust in his fellow man. Mark has friends, and when not toiling away on his scenarios and chatting to his family of dolls, he walks to the nearest town to shoot the breeze. But he’s unable to commit to anything, and only feels really safe when he’s lost in his fantasy world.
But Mark takes notice when a handsome woman moves in across the street. Nicol (Leslie Mann) is recovering from a messy break-up with a controlling man, and is intrigued by Mark’s gentle, shy manner. He then assumes romance is on the cards, and works himself into a right old tizzy.
When Mark disappears into his doll world, the magic of motion capture allows us to follow, and the walking, talking, Nazi-whooping figurines are really brilliantly rendered: at first I didn’t know how it was being done, until I noticed the lead doll bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Carell.
So in an odd way, motion capture is actually this film’s greatest strength: its weaknesses are primarily dramatic. Mark suffers, but un-illuminatingly, and his inability to connect with others reduces the effectiveness of other characters. Ms. Mann is fine as the kindly Nicol, particularly in an excruciating scene where Mark attempts a clumsy proposal, but most of the time is condemned to watching passively from the sidelines.
The doll scenes, while beautifully executed, are accompanied by comic-book style dialogue that is intended to be humorous but mainly isn’t. The result can be admired but not invested in emotionally, which makes this a curiously uninvolving experience. Steve Carell is excellent, of course: he’s a genuine character actor, and his versatility is underappreciated. But he works here in the service of a flawed and hollow film.
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