When I saw the second trailer for Welcome to Marwen, I could not have been more excited. A film based on a true story, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starring Steve Carell, who's proven to be one of the finest actors of his generation. On top of all that, the trailer featured the excellent "Spirits," by The Strumbellas, as well as the promise of a film filled with the kind of imaginative imagery and thoughtful entertainment that Zemeckis is known for. It was the best trailer of the year, and it seemed like a pretty safe bet that it would lead to one of the better movies of the year.
Turns out I was wrong. I hate being wrong. The year's best trailer has lead to the year's worst movie.
Where to start on this dumpster fire? I've written this paragraph, deleted it, then rewritten it several times. When there's so much wrong with a movie, it's hard to know what to talk about first. And you know what? That's the worst thing about this movie: it's incredibly bad when it shouldn't be. But more on that later.
We open on a funny, exciting battle scene starring a doll-ified version of Steve Carell fighting Nazis while wearing women's high heels. Admittedly, it's a compelling intro, inspiring curiosity in the audience and establishing the strange world of Mark's mind. Before long we're immediately and jarringly thrown into the "real" world of the film, where we are introduced to a non-doll Mark Hogencamp, a victim of trauma and a prescription drug addict. After being brutally attacked and beaten within an inch of his life, Mark copes with his trauma by taking pictures of various dolls (who look just like him and the supposedly influential women in his life) in a model town he's built outside his home. He calls the town Marwen, and sets it and its inhabitants in WWII-era Belgium. It's an interesting enough coping mechanism, and continues to feed that curiosity established in the opening scene.
Unfortunately, not even ten minutes in, the movie starts misstepping. We are introduced to Mark's caretaker, Anna, a sweet Russian woman who shows up in human form in exactly one scene. But don't worry, she has a doll named and designed after her, and we're told by Mark that she's important so that must be true. We move from one disjointed character introduction to another, and highlighted early on is my biggest glaring issue with the film: The supporting characters have about as much dimension as characters in a porn film.
This is especially disheartening when it comes to the female characters. Each and every woman in this film, as well as their doll counterpart, exists only to fulfill a need for Mark. Janelle Monáe's physical therapist character could have been an interesting, somewhat fleshed out person with her own aspirations and demons to face. She has a prosthetic leg and she's supposedly made enough of an impact on Mark's life to warrant a doll in her honor. But we're given zero development beyond that. She does nothing in the film but shoot Nazis in doll form and spout platitudes about embracing pain. Even Mark's best friend Roberta is never given any development beyond caring about Mark. We're not given one shred of actual information about her, but we're expected to care about her because Mark does and she's nice. Not one female character in this film is adequately developed, and that's disconcerting when a dominant theme of the film is the influence that women have on Mark's life.
Leslie Mann's character, Nicol, is a little bit better in this department, but not by much. Introduced in the first few minutes via Mark's stalker binoculars, we learn throughout the film that she's new to the neighborhood, she's pretty and nice, she likes tea, and she has an ex who used to be a cop. That's... about it. After we learn everything about her that matters, she serves no function other than to be a love interest and savior for Mark.
Mark himself throws a wrinkle into this problem by admiring the women in his life... for all they bring to his life. He never admires the PT for the bravery or sacrifice that lost her her leg. He never takes so much as a minute to praise his friend Caralala for the cooking he helps her with. Mark instead chooses to wear high heels, because he feels that it helps him connect to "the essence of womanhood" (In one scene he instead says "the essence of dames." Real progressive, guys). It's probably the most interesting detail in the film, and still only conveys womanhood and femininity through the eyes of a character who identifies as male. Even if the women are objects of admiration, they're still seen as objects. The film seems to disregard its women so thoroughly that you have to wonder if any women even looked at the screenplay. And that's when the bummer gets even more epic, as you discover that the script was co-written by Caroline Thompson, whose previous credits include Edward Scissorhands, Black Beauty, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Corpse Bride.
Surely, such a prolific screenwriter, coupled with a director known for his engaging stories and entertaining worlds, would understand the fundamentals of storytelling. But Welcome to Marwen is such a puzzling experience that all evidence points to the contrary. Several characters are introduced, given one scene, and then promptly abandoned for the rest of the film. Nicol's ex-boyfriend shows up, scares Mark, and then is never seen or heard from again. A bartender character tells a patron about Mark's attack, then we see Mark's attack in flashback, then we hear him tell Nicol about it, accompanied by another flashback. In the film's big trial scene, Mark describes his attack again.
There's also absolutely zero subtlety to this film. A pivotal scene involves Mark's avatar confronting a character who represents his addiction to pills, wherein he says that they're what's been keeping Mark sick, that they represent his addiction, and that he's killing them in the name of Marwen and Mark. I wish I was kidding. When Mark is inspired to change the name from Marwen to Marwencol, we are given the reason for him doing it via a character saying, "Oh, I get it now. You did this because..." The film doesn't meet one single theme or message that it doesn't beat into the ground, operating under the apparent belief that their audience is populated by seven-year-olds. There's nothing the audience is told that we're not told twice, which makes all that we're not told all the more infuriating.
Even the slivers of light on display in this film are beaten to a pulp by the oppressively bad elements. Steve Carell is a very capable actor, and there were several legitimately moving moments in his performance ruined by saying too much. One example is Carell, camera in hand, breaking down crying, and saying aloud, "I'm so tired." If the filmmakers had left it there, it would have been a great moment. But they take it a step too far by having him say, "I'm so tired of being lonely." Thanks for spelling it out so anyone in the second grade and under can clearly understand it. Leslie Mann is lovely and more than capable, as proven by her countless comedy titles. We see glimpses of her skill here and there in Marwen, but she's vastly underutilized by filmmakers asking her to play a one-dimensional character in a first-draft script. Even the fun, engaging visuals of the opening sequence grow old fast, as we're thrown into disjointed animated fantasy sequences that don't follow any parallels to the live-action story. They end up feeling like an excuse for Robert Zemeckis to exorcise some of his weird demons, rather than an organic part of the story that makes sense. This results in tonal inconsistency that plagues the entire film, which doesn't know whether it wants to be an imaginative exploration of healing or a harrowing depiction of trauma. It tries to be both and comes up short every time.
And the biggest slap in the face to me as an audience member was how the film ends: it doesn't. Throughout the film, we are told to a painful extent that Mark needs to show up at the court hearing to confront the guys who beat him up (none of whom are given any development beyond swastika tattoos). If we take nothing else away from the film, it's that Mark needs to confront his trauma. When he finally does, we're treated to the film's most moving moment, where Mark gives a heartfelt statement to the court, that he has his town, his friends and his pictures, and assures us that, "I'll be okay." And just like that, the scene ends. We're not shown the resolution to the trial, we don't find out what happens to Mark's attackers. Instead we're thrown into the next scene, where we're hammered over the head with Mark's reasons for renaming the town. Then the movie abruptly, unsatisfactorily, but at least mercifully, ends.
Coming from Universal Pictures, this is pretty bad. Robert Zemeckis made one of the best movies ever with Back to the Future. He made us cry over a volleyball in Cast Away, deftly explored the pitfalls of alcoholism with Flight, and has established himself as a legend in Hollywood. He's better than this movie. Steve Carell is a wonderful actor. He's better than this movie. Leslie Mann is better than this movie. I don't think there's anyone who was involved in this movie who isn't better than this movie. Yes, that's a double negative. This movie is a lot of negatives, with very few positives; A baffling misfire from a remarkable team; and a movie where creative conceit and good performances crumble under the weight of sexism and tone-deaf lack of subtlety. I wanted to see the Welcome to Marwen advertised by the second trailer. Instead I saw the kind of movie Michael Scott would write if he wanted to write a feel-good story.