The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Welcome to Marwen

The writing was on the wall for Welcome to Marwen when Universal Pictures failed to launch an awards campaign for the film. They bought no trade ads, sent no screeners to voting critics, and made no efforts to tout it as a contender. That's a surprise, since it's the new film from Back to the Future and Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis -- and one coming out right in the heart of awards season, no less. Given that Universal is encouraging Best Picture consideration for both Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, there's little doubt that they have no real confidence in it.

Here's the thing, though: Welcome to Marwen isn't entirely successful at what it wants to do, but it's an insanely ambitious picture that takes bold storytelling risks. That makes it kind of fascinating.

Steve Carell plays artist Mark Hogencamp, whose story was already told in the documentary Marwencol. He was savagely beaten by some men in a bar after admitting to a fetish for women's shoes. The resulting attack wiped out all of his personal memories. To cope with his trauma, Mark has created a fantasy world in his backyard: Marwen, a fictional Belgian village during WWII. Modifying dolls to resemble himself and various important women in his life, he comes up with elaborate, semi-autobiographical stories of discrimination and resistance, telling them through photographs he takes. His alter ego is a war hero named Cap'n Hogie, whose female cohorts are based on a wounded vet he befriended in rehab (Janelle Monae), the woman (Merritt Wever) who works at the hobby shop where he buys his supplies, and so on. The Nazis they continually fight are, of course, his assailants.

Things in Mark's life come to a head with two significant events. One is that he gets a new neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), to whom he's attracted. The other is his need to show up for the sentencing hearing of the guys who beat him.

Welcome to Marwen is about trauma, what it does to people, and how they work through it. For Mark, emotions are not something easily expressed. He prefers to let his dolls do the talking for him. (Hogie, like his inspiration, even wears women's shoes at various points in the story.) By dissociating -- separating from reality and channeling his identity into his fictional creations -- Mark is able to avoid directly confronting the deep emotional wounds caused by his ordeal. In fact, one of his dolls, a witch named Deja (Diane Kruger), is what he blames for things in his life not going the way he wants them to.

This is complex subject matter, and it's an atypical choice to deal with it in a film that's half animated. Zemeckis uses motion capture technology to turn Carell and the other actors into living dolls. Welcome to Marwen has sad or contemplative real-world scenes, then swerves dramatically into these CGI-animated scenes that are carried out with a campy, over-the-top feel. Sometimes the film swings back and forth between them rapidly in an attempt to replicate how Mark retreats into this safe zone when he has a flashback. A few such sequences are played for humor, while others have elaborate action as Mark and the women fight the Nazis.

The way Zemeckis unexpectedly throws you into the fantasy moments is jarring at points, borderline silly in others because of how exaggerated those transitions are. Clearly, the intent was to indicate how heightened Mark's feelings become in threatening moments, but you might find yourself fighting off unintentional laughter.

Unsurprisingly given its disparate elements and motivations, Welcome to Marwen is tonally inconsistent. Watching it is not unlike watching four separate movies all at the same time. One second, it's tugging at your heartstrings, the next it wants to provide rousing thrills, and the next after that it's trying to elicit chuckles by showing a WWII doll wearing stilettos.

Yes, this is a deeply bizarre film. Having said that, the willingness to not play things safe is worthy of respect. Carell, Mann, and Wever are all very good, and the film is often accurate in its depiction of life after trauma. Had the approach fully come together, Welcome to Marwen would have been a masterpiece. It doesn't, although a certain amount of pleasure can absolutely be gleaned from watching Zemeckis shoot for the moon, even if he doesn't reach it.

( 1/2 out of four)

Welcome to Marwen is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.

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