The beginning of 2019 looks set to be a busy period for one Steve Carell. Continuing his journey to break out of the comedy genre for which he is best known, Carell has two interesting projects coming out in short succession in the UK. We have to wait a couple weeks more for the hotly anticipated father/son drama Beautiful Boy, but first we have Welcome To Marwen, a film based on a true story that proves reality really is stranger than fiction.
The film tells the story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an American artist who, after being left debilitated by a ferocious group assault, builds a model town in his home to create heroic story lines and help ease his PTSD symptoms. Marwen, the fictional Belgian village, exists in a World War II setting, and is filled with representations of women in Mark’s life who he feels have saved him.
It’s hard to know how to approach a film like Welcome To Marwen, because whilst there is definitely heart, charm and ambition there, overall it just feels like there is something major that doesn’t quiet click in to place. On a thematic and creative level, all of the ingredients are there to produce something whimsical, melancholy and highly original, and although the film certainly is original, it manages to fall somewhat flat despite its inventive premise.
The narrative cuts between the sometimes cute, sometimes sombre, sometimes distressing reality of Mark’s everyday life and the vibrant, over the top, arresting animated sequences that he produces in his fictional village. The two sides of the story come together to make something that is full of metaphor, message and meaning, the problem being that not all of the metaphor and meaning feels totally on point. Add to that the fact that a lot of the film’s dialogue is straight up bad, with exposition being thrown at the audience when they don’t particularly need it. It ends up being a sort of frustrating experience where the metaphor alone is enough, but more often than not it is followed by dialogue that treads over the sam ground and ruins the nuance.
The fingerprints of director Robert Zemeckis are all over the movie, you can feel a tangible connection so something like Forrest Gump in the offbeat tone of the narrative, although Welcome To Marwen has a decidedly sharper edge than the 90s classic. The tonal shifts that are attempted don’t always work in the ways that they were intended, and over the course of the runtime things starts to get a little too jarring for completely enjoyable viewing. Ultimately, the film has heaps of ambition and creativity, but the execution just isn’t quite there.
As Mark Hogancamp, Steve Carell gives a sweet but not quite stand out performance. The quirks and special qualities of the character do give him that Forrest Gump air that is so recognisable, and Carell plays the role earnestly to good effect. I don’t know that I can say I truly connected with him, but I certainly emphasised and rooted for him, so mission accomplished I guess?
One of the film’s best assets is its cast of great actresses in central roles as the characters who make up the fabric of Mark’s sheltered life. From Janelle Monáe to Leslie Mann to Merritt Wever to Eiza González to Gwendoline Christie, each has their own turn to shine, both in the real world and in animated Marwen, and the concept at the centre of Mark’s fictional universe that women are the ones who are going to save the world is a really cool and poignant one.
Overall, Welcome To Marwen is simply a weird one. I can’t say that I really liked it, but I’m also glad that I’ve seen it, does that make sense? It’s the kind of movie that you want a friend to have seen so you can have someone to talk it through with. There is probably more to gain from the film on a second watch, but the fatal thing is, I’m not sure it’s good enough to want to spend another two hours with. What it has done though, as many sub par true story movies often do, is ignite my interest in the reality of the tale and make me want to find out more about the real Mark Hogancamp. It’s an incredible story, just one that I’m afraid was not done total justice in this incarnation.