Welcome to Marwen, the latest effort from Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) stars Steve Carell as real-life assault victim Mark Hogancamp, who, after being violently attacked for admitting to a group of fragile male egos in a bar that he likes to wear high heels, builds a fictional village of dolls in his backyard as a coping mechanism for his PTSD. Just as Mark built his land of toys to escape the trauma of his assault, I wanted to enter my own imaginary land so I could escape the mess that is this film.
All negative criticism aside (which doesn’t leave much else to say), on the surface this is a touching story about the power of art and the role it can play in helping us to process emotions: ultimately it is Mark’s artistic talents that aid him in his recovery. Unfortunately, we are not left as inspired and moved as Zemeckis might have wanted. It’s the thought that counts, I guess.
Mark uses the animated world of Marwen primarily to explore his revenge fantasy on the men who assaulted him (they feature in doll form as Nazis). Together with a group of female dolls inspired by the women in his life, they spend their time battling the Nazis and living in fear of an evil witch (who serves as an obvious metaphor for Mark’s drug addiction). This can be viewed from two perspectives: (1) women and man in heels kick ass, (2) lonely man objectifies the women of his life as sexualised dolls. Unfortunately, due to weak writing and poor character development, the latter is the impression we are left with. Imagine an older, slightly creepier Andy from Toy Story.
It’s disappointing to see a talented cast of stars like Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monàe, and Gwendoline Christie (who comes with an interesting Russian accent) have their talents wasted on mostly one-dimensional and conservative female narratives. This could have been a progressive drama about an innocent man’s recovery from a hate crime and an important moment for non-stereotypical male identity in mainstream cinema but unfortunately, it provoked smirking, cringing, and wincing from the audience.
This is not at the fault of Steve Carell, who is as good as he could possibly be with the material that he’s been given. It is the lack of depth in explaining Mark’s backstory, his interest in women’s shoes, and the strange portrayal of his relationships with women that gives little meaning to the story and diminishes the fact that he is a victim of a very serious, hateful act. This man was beaten within an inch of his life for admitting that he likes to wear women’s shoes, had his memory erased, and now suffers from PTSD yet we find ourselves laughing at him?
So rarely do queer audience members see characters on screen that they identify with and it’s disheartening and disappointing that when we do, the character is made out to be… odd.
My absolute favourite moment was a line said by love-interest Roberta (played by Merritt Wever) as Mark reveals the new name of his village Marwencol, inspired by his crush on new neighbour Nicol (played by Leslie Mann): “oh now I get it, the Col is from Nicol”. The idea that the writers included a statement so painfully obvious suggests that they had little faith in the audience having any idea as to what was going on as they watched this movie and I can confirm that this is exactly how I felt.
This would have worked a lot better as a completely animated feature inspired by the world of Marwen which would have been a touching tribute to Mark’s creativity and imagination (I’m so here for an animated franchise based on a male action hero who fights bad guys whilst dressed in high heels) but instead the combination of live action and animation adds to an already ambitious plot and we are left asking who this movie is actually for.