Early January is the time at which studios tend to release two types of films: slow-burn Oscar contenders (see: The Favourite) and misfires they’re looking to quietly bury.
Despite the best attempts of director Robert Zemeckis and star Steve Carrell, Welcome To Marwen would seem to fall into the latter camp; its conceptual oddity outweighing its Walter Mitty-esque appeal, despite its unique based-on-a-true-story credentials.
Mark Hogancamp (Carrell) is an oddball and semi-recluse; a former artist whose drawing abilities were kicked out of his head, along with most of his memories, in a brutal assault. Casually hooked on painkillers and struggling to cope with debilitating PTSD, he seeks refuge in the fantasy world of Marwen; a fictional village that he has meticulously constructed and that now serves as the basis for his photography.
There he lives out adventures as an articulated man of action, the self-assured Captain Hogie (Carrell, plasticised); battling Nazis along with a cadre of beautiful “dolls”, who alternate roles as the imperilled and his saviour. They are all based on real women in his life: his Russian care-worker, Anna (Gwendoline Christie); his physiotherapist, Julie (Janelle Monae); Mark’s colleague, Caralala (Eiza Gonzalez) at the bar where he works part-time; his closest acquaintance (Merritt Wever), Roberta, whom he knows from the local model shop; and now sunny new neighbour, Nicol (Leslie Mann). In reality, they’re all aware of his hobby, and how they feature in it, and seemingly happy to support Mark in his obsession.
All of them that is apart from blue-haired witch Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), who separates Hogie from anyone he grows close to; the symbolism of whom is clumsily spelled out. Safe to say, though, the gender politics don’t play particularly well in the current climate: the supporting cast, so call it, is comprised almost entirely of Maternal Pixie Dream Girls.
Mark might talk like a serial killer – his fondness for heels is because they contain a woman’s “essence” – but Carrell plays him as introverted and slightly sheepish; all too aware of what he has lost.
Welcome To Marwen is at its best when shifting seamlessly from live-action to stop-motion and back; either on a grand or micro scale. A speeding jeep becomes a toy wheeled along the road; tracer rounds burst through the window of Mark’s home. In the third act, though, fantasy takes over: despite the suggestion that Mark needs to engage with the real world, such as by facing those who beat in him in court, his issues are all ultimately resolved in Marwen, which feels dramatically evasive.
There’s also an over-reliance on Alan Silvestri’s buoyant score and just a touch of Suicide Squad Syndrome when it comes to the soundtrack, which veers from Jack White to Joni Mitchell, sometime in the space of a scene.
Certainly singular in its vision, if occasionally self-indulgent – there’s an inescapable reference to another of Zemeckis’ works – Welcome To Marwen is an endearing cinematic misfit that, like its protagonist, deserves to find acceptance in the world. Too campy to taken seriously, too sincere to be kitschy, and with a $40 million budget to budget, it is likely too weird and too flawed to find much love; sad, given its message of tolerance.
Still, a promising early contender for the Mad As Arseholes Award of 2019.