Robert Zemeckis has remade the documentary Marwencol as a motion-capture nightmare with Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, and, for some reason, the DeLorean from Back to the Future. Something is wrong with Robert Zemeckis. If you thought it was too late for a movie to enter the “Worst of 2018” sweepstakes*, welcome to Welcome to Marwen!
Marwencol told the true story of Mark Hogancamp, an artist who photographs tableaux set in a model World War II–era town he's created in his backyard. The town is populated with dolls that Hogancamp arranges in various dramatic poses, typically of a figurine of a male soldier (representing Hogancamp) and a team of women friends all battling Nazis. The work is therapy for—and an interpretation of—a real-life attack Hogancamp suffered when five men beat him to near-death outside a bar after he professed to liking to wear women’s shoes.
Welcome to Marwen thinks that the most interesting parts of this story are the imagined exploits of Hogancamp’s dolls. This means that close to 50 percent of the movie is a nonsensical World War II adventure with lots of exploding bullets, and the characters rendered in Zemeckis’s unspeakably uncanny mo-cap animation.
It looks dreadful—the actors are given computer-rendered doll counterparts that superficially resemble them eerily well, but in every other way are lifeless, distended, and grotesque. The women have all been given uniform Barbie-doll hourglass body types, even as their real-life correspondents are played by actors with wonderfully varied shapes like Monáe, Merritt Wever, and Gwendoline Christie.
There might have been an opportunity for the movie to interrogate the exaggerated sexuality of dolls designed for children, but Zemeckis isn’t interested in the least. As such, Welcome to Marwen—as it ickily slobbers over women with improbably big chests and dangerously wasp-thin waists—is probably a pretty shitty thing for young women to sit through.
Zemeckis also seems to be continually referring to his own earlier, superior work in a way that’s baffling. There’s the way the women all look like Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, of course, but what’s odder is that during a climactic scene, the Back to the Future DeLorean shows up in this World War II village for reasons that won’t make sense even if I spent the rest of this review explaining them. (They involve a lava lamp, some prescription drugs, and a blue-haired Belgian witch.)
The real-life scenes, starring Carell as Hogancamp and Mann as his crazily accommodating new neighbor, have a glazed-over, touchy-feely sentimentality that’s the hand-me-down of Forrest Gump. The dialogue is stilted and slow, with everyone behaving as if they can't remember if they're shooting the mo-cap stuff that day or if what they're doing will actually be seen on-screen.
It’s a weirdly wretched and unpleasant thing to sit through, but not for lack of big ideas. Hogancamp’s story—of violence, of art as therapy, of overcoming trauma—has a lot that a skilled filmmaker could latch on to. Zemeckis, unfortunately, is preoccupied with the escapism that Hogancamp’s invented town represents, and that could be okay if he made anything interesting happen there. He does not. Instead, you’re stuck watching garish, creepy dolls doing things that don’t make sense for half of the run time, and sad, somber actors doing the same for the other half.
* To be 100 percent fair, Welcome to Marwen is only the second-worst movie of the year. First place goes to Mile 22, a movie I described as “vile, despicable, and entirely unacceptable.” Kudos, Mr. Wahlberg!