Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard //Film Critic
WELCOME TO MARWEN
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
There are so many things wrong with director/ co-writer Robert Zemeckis’ WELCOME TO MARWEN, it’s hard to know where to begin. He, along with co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson, have turned what was a perfect, nuanced documentary into a seedy, schmaltzy fictionalization. The original film, MARWENCOL, looked at the psychological trauma and unusual therapy of sketch artist-turned-photographer Mark Hogancamp. Now that story has been perverted, this new film turns everything progressive into problematic, doing wrong by all of its heroes, especially its diverse female characters.
Mark (Steve Carell) lives most of his life in a miniature fantasy world he’s crafted mere inches away from his double wide trailer in a sleepy suburbia. To connote the seamless shifting in his perspective, C. Kim Miles’ cinematography oscillates from bright color saturation while in Mark’s imagination, to a washed out color palette when in his reality. His fantasy is anon-going soap-operatic saga set in WWII-era Belgium where he, as Captain Hogie, is attempting to defend the town of Marwen alongside a group of tough, buxom broads, battling a band of invading German S.S. soldiers who can kill, but never be killed themselves. Marwen’s populace includes Caralala (Eiza González), Roberta (Merritt Wever), Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), Anna (Gwendoline Christie)and Julie (Janelle Monáe). Each one of these women double as avatars for women in Mark’s real life (like their souls trapped in doll form commanded at the behest of their male puppeteer) – all except the town’s mysterious witch woman, Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger). Astute audiences will guess what she represents far ahead of her reveal.
Mark has created a fantastical narrative in which he is the hero he feels he couldn’t be in real life: One night, outside a bar, he was ruthlessly attacked by a group of Nazi thugs to the point of him losing his memory – a beating he thinks he brought on himself due to his excessive drinking and fondness for women’s footwear. Though he contends that his adoration of women’s shoes is “not a fetish,” but rather that they contain the“essence” of a woman, the filmmakers make that confession feel creepy rather than charmingly progressive. His fantasy is an escape where he’s always got the perfect one-liner, and where women rely on him. However, Mark’s new world order is shaken up even more upon the arrival of beautiful next-door neighbor “Nicol with no E” (Leslie Mann), suffering from anguish of her own, naturally – just before a gallery show of his photographs, and a court appearance to confront his attackers.
The way in which Zemeckis and Company visualize Mark’s trauma, like an unsettling phone call with his lawyer morphing into a bullet-riddled attack on his safe haven, is worthy of an epic cinematic treatment. However, the film sorely lacks the depth and dimension the 2010 documentary explored. There’s no layered commentary on the limitations of art’s healing qualities, nor is there much in the way of genuine profundity and poignancy. The filmmakers rely on convenience, contrivance and exposition to move from one scene to the next.
They take great pains to gloss over the documentary’s delicate complexities, details like why Mark chose females as his protectors. Instead,they’re more interested in objectifying women, exploiting them versus empowering them. Their seemingly innocent intent curdles rather than coming across as cutesy – specifically in the scene where Mark grooms Nicol’s “glamanista” doppelganger, gathering her hair into a ponytail as Julie London seductively croons “Yummy Yummy Yummy” on the soundtrack. The male gaze continues when the dolls strut, in their hero shot, to Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” These are Mark’s version of those beautiful, perfectly shellacked women that Palmer propelled into the spotlight. Women are devoid of agency, hyper-sexualized and barely one-dimensional. Julie is an amputeed physical therapist offering sage platitudes (like “our pain is our rocket fuel”) for the sole purpose of helping Mark. Caralala is a bar cook who’s there exclusively to listen to Mark. Thick Russian-accented home care service provider Anna, who breezes in and out quickly, is there to care for Mark. Roberta, who works at a thoroughly-stocked hobby shop (one whose sole client is Mark), is there to be the attainable love interest. And Nicol is a stereotypical damsel in distress until she rejects Mark’s advances, thus cruel and unusual punishment inflicted on two characters at once.
WELCOME TO MARWEN seems to be crafted by filmmakers with no fundamental understanding of what disability and addiction should feel like. It barely knows how people should relate to each other – let alone dolls.
WELCOME TO MARWEN opens on December 21.