The following is my review and represents my opinion. No matter if you agree or disagree, I would like to have a discussion about the film and promote this wonderful art form. All I ask: be nice about it. Art is subjective and no one’s opinion is right.
After a vicious attack leaves him both physically and mentally scarred, Mark Hogancamp(Steve Carell) slowly pieces his life back together with the fictional town of Marwen: a custom-built collection of buildings and characters where his photography skills can shine, and where he can live happily within his own imagination.
Robert Zemeckis‘ Welcome to Marwen seems almost designed to win that sweet, sweet golden man. The term ‘Oscar-bait’ is thrown around a lot to describe the less than absolutely perfect-in-every-way prestige films: and more often than not, it is rightfully deserved. Many have used it to describe this movie, which I do understand: it’s a clumsy mess that lives and breathes to get that illustrious golden head on a shelf and onto résumés. But ultimately, it’s a clumsy mess I weirdly enjoyed, if nothing more than the strangely moving endearing innocence of it all.
At its heart, Steve Carell is found delivering a visceral, at times haunting, but consistently likeable performance as Mark Hogancamp, frequently using a childlike innocence to portray the effects of his trauma, with distressing-to-watch results. Co-starring alongside him, Leslie Mann portrays Hogancamp’s neighbour, renamed Nicol, with a cutesy, overwhelmingly innocent sentimentality that makes her far too idealistic to be likeable or interesting. With equal failure, Merrit Wever is scarcely one-note as Hogancamp’s (fictional) close friend, Roberta: giving a performance that is as emotionally void as a black hole, but nowhere near as interesting.
How this film differs from standard storytelling conventions comes from how else this cast is used, as not only do they portray physical beings – they also portray the fictional characters within Hogancamp’s imaginary story; one which is rather cleverly presented by Zemeckis‘ appropriately plastic-looking animation style. This style helps encapsulate the childlike wonder and innocence populating Hogancamp’s head, which feeds into the incredibly sentimental and sympathy-driven depiction of the character.
Ultimately, where this film fails on a larger scale is its screenplay – which has a very solid first half, a very tedious second half and an omnipresent sense of inept clumsiness brewing within it, in a juggling act that feels as though Zemeckis was juggling three balls; added a fourth, then added an axe, then a molotov cocktail, then a living Honey-badger and then decided to do it all on a unicycle blindfolded. Very little of the humour truly works, and when it does it only does out of duress, not wit. Later on, the focus is also shifted to Hogancamp’s relationship with his next-door neighbour, Nicol, whereas I feel the constant throughline should have been on his PTSD, his genuinely heartbreaking coping mechanism and the fascinating theme of art imitating life,.
The stories Hogancamp made using his dolls were largely drawn from his own life and experiences, but to the same extent – the film implies that his actual life became influenced by the reality he constructed. Art and life are so intrinsically intertwined that the insight this film could have provided – as regardless of criticism, this is one unique story – could have revitalised this subject. Though, the argument that focus should be on Hogancamp’s journey is a strong one, or would be in a greater film. This particular film neglects to focus on either a greater theme or Hogancamp as a person: instead, using his story and endless intrigue as a trampoline into a schmaltzy, sickeningly-sentimental and ultimately meaningless couple seconds of so-called inspirational goodness, opting to champion friendship(an admirable moral, in a My Little Pony cartoon) and neglect the deeper fascination of this subject. Truthfully, it’s the definition of ‘missed opportunity’.
Though while I could ravage this film endlessly for what it wasn’t, it is what it is: and it works on the most basic level it can from that. Carrell truly is great and the audacious absurdity of the entire experience makes it an oddly alluring watch. Something tells me very few people are going to truly enjoy this film based on its weirdness – but I think that is part of the charm.