There was a moment early on in Welcome to Marwen when I scribbled in my critic’s notebook, “Steve Carell really wants to fuck that doll!” That’s not what I was expecting to write for a film that has been marketed as a winsome ode to the magic of creativity, but then I remembered that director Robert Zemeckis has always had a randy streak. After all, it was he who put poor Marty McFly in the position of having to reject advances from his own mother in Back to the Future, and later created the most disproportionate cartoon ever put on celluloid in the form of Jessica Rabbit.
In Welcome to Marwen, Zemeckis is up to his old horny tricks and a whole lot more. It’s based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp (Carell), a simple dishwasher who lost his memory after being attacked by Nazis in his upstate New York town. The attack takes place prior to the film, and the details are revealed slowly. When we first meet Mark, he is suffering from PTSD and channeling his fears into a backyard art installation of dolls enacting WWII scenes. In this world, “Hoagie” is the captain of a battalion of sexy women dolls, all based on real people he knows and presumably wants to bang, charged with protecting the fictional town of Marwen from the Third Reich.
There’s more: Mark likes to wear women’s shoes. He has a collection of over 200 pairs of heels, and the reason those modern-day Nazis beat him nearly to death is because he drunkenly mentioned that he’s into that. Any credit Zemeckis might deserve for his non-judgmental attitude towards the fetish is obliterated by the creepy way Mark describes it—he says it makes him feel closer to “a woman’s essence”—and, more importantly, that it adds nothing of value to the story. It’s a character quirk that is clearly true-to-life, but it takes up an inordinate amount of time in a movie that already has plenty of trouble staying focused.
There’s quite a lot going on in Marwen. The fantasy sequences that use stop-motion animation to put Carell and his women into battle are clearly what drew Zemeckis to the material, and they don’t disappoint. Each scene, especially the opening in which Hoagie’s plane is shot down, is compelling as a standalone set piece, but they mean very little when the human element is so poorly drawn. Mark has a deadline to get over his trauma—a sentencing date for his attackers at which he is scheduled to attend—but Zemeckis’ shallow direction does little to demonstrate his healing, and Carell, who plays Mark as a Forrest Gump-like simpleton, continues to prove he is overmatched by the dramatic material to which he gravitates.
I haven’t even mentioned the kindly dream girl Nicole (Leslie Mann) who moves in across the street from Mark, and whom he proposes to on their first date, or her harasser ex-boyfriend who shows up to threaten Mark a couple of times and then disappears from the movie forever. There are a lot of dots in Welcome to Marwen but little to connect them. It puts you in the shoes of its protagonist, who is overwhelmed by life and would rather live in fantasy land, but unlike him, it never finds its way out.
Welcome to Marwen opens Friday in theaters everywhere.