There was a time that seeing Robert Zemeckis’ name on a film guaranteed at least a certain level of quality. From the Back to the Future flicks to Forrest Gump to Contact, he tackled a bunch of different genres and rarely (if ever) misfired. Right around the turn of the century, though, things started going downhill, and since then, Zemeckis has given us things like Cast Away (which is only worthwhile for Tom Hanks’ performance), The Polar Express, Flight (which is only worthwhile for Denzel Washington’s performance), and 2016’s miserable Allied.
Zemeckis’ streak of duds continues with Welcome to Marwen, which he also co-wrote—an overly sappy, tone-deaf mess that frankly should have never been made; the 2010 documentary Marwencol tells the story better than Zemeckis could ever dream of.
The general gist is certainly fascinating enough: After being beaten within an inch of his life in a hate crime, Mark Hogancamp lost his long-term memory and then coped by creating a miniature World War II-era town populated with exquisite dolls and action figures. Translating all that into a feature film, though, proved to be a fool’s errand—especially in the hands of Zemeckis, who can’t seem to do anything without adding an entirely unnecessary syrupy candy coating and a slick Hollywood sheen.
Steve Carell stars as Hogancamp, who, as the film opens, is picturing himself as Cap’n Hogie, an action figure/fighter pilot soaring over Belgium. When he gets shot down and cornered by the Nazis, it’s up to his gaggle of dolls/female heroes to swoop in and save the day. The women all represent people in Hogancamp’s real life, including physical therapist Julie (Janelle Monáe), local cook Caralala (Eiza González), and pop-in caretaker Anna (Gwendoline Christie). They’re later joined by Nicol (Leslie Mann), Mark’s new neighbor.
The balance of the film is little more than an overly stylized look at how Hogancamp deals with his daily life, including PTSD-induced hallucinations and the fallout of his beating; he’s struggling with the fact that his lawyer wants him to read a statement in court at the upcoming sentencing of his assailants. And, thanks to Zemeckis, it’s the height of forced heartstring-pulling.
Even more poorly executed are the occasional journeys into the world of Marwen, which serve as Exhibit A in the case against making this film. Here, the female dolls are sexed-up “things”, sporting lingerie, fishnets, and stilettos. At one point they even march along to the tune of Robert Palmer’s female-objectification anthem “Addicted to Love”. It’s an unfair representation of the real-life Marwen, which is also populated by dozens and dozens of other (more modest) dolls, including plenty of the male soldiers (none of which we ever see). So why, instead, are we made to feel as though this guy is a bit of a dirty old man? It’s hard to have any sympathy for someone who Zemeckis portrays as frankly kinda creepy.
Hogancamp deserves far better than this, and Zemeckis should be ashamed of himself for even trying. Do yourself a favor, skip this disaster, and watch Marwencol instead. It’s a far, far better telling of an amazing man’s struggle to regain his life.