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Welcome to Marwen is just about the worst movie anybody involved in it has ever made

Worse, the Robert Zemeckis film — which stars Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, and many others — poorly fictionalizes a tremendous documentary.

Welcome to Marwen
Steve Carell plays Mark Hogancamp in Welcome to Marwen, a heavily fictionalized version of the 2010 documentary Marwencol.
Universal Pictures
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Welcome to Marwen is a disastrously misconceived movie, but in such a boring way that it’s hard to imagine its target audience. Most of the time, big-screen disasters are hugely ambitious tales that completely miss the mark. This one hits the mark, but it’s probably not a target anybody should have been aiming at.

A heavily fictionalized version of the wonderful 2010 documentary Marwencol, Welcome to Marwen follows Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an artist recovering from a brutal attack spurred by his love of wearing women’s high heels. In order to facilitate his psychological healing, he builds a to-scale Belgian village in miniature in his backyard, then populates it with dolls that enact a variety of World War II scenarios, which he then photographs. The photographs have won him some attention, and much of the tension in Welcome to Marwen rests on whether he will attend a show displaying them, despite his extreme psychological distress.

The movie plays out on two planes — Mark’s plane of existence (which is our own) and that of the dolls, who are computer-animated in a fashion that might be described as a creepier variation on Toy Story. It’s an attempt to get at the artificiality of Mark’s slow peeling-back of his own troubled layers, which sort of tries to replicate the documentary’s gentle pace and willingness to let the real Hogancamp reveal his traumas at his own speed. But it’s ultimately an unsuccessful one.

Look: Adapting true stories into movies that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit and come out at Christmastime is a time-honored Hollywood tradition. But trying to shoehorn a documentary about the fragility of the soul into a tale of one man achieving his psychological healing by staging an elaborate battle between his doll avatar and a bunch of doll Nazis (a battle that comes complete with Back to the Future references!) is such a misconceived notion to begin with that Welcome to Marwen can never overcome the question of why it exists.

There is so much talent wasted in this movie

Welcome to Marwen
So many great performers turned into dolls.
Universal Pictures

Welcome to Marwen is the latest film from director Robert Zemeckis, long one of cinema’s most compelling tinkerers. He has directed everything from the Back to the Future trilogy to Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Cast Away, and he won an Oscar for Forrest Gump. He’s also spent much of this century buried in technical experiments that haven’t exactly paid off, like the creepy automatons of his motion-capture animated films (The Polar Express, Beowulf) or the IMAX wonders of 2015’s The Walk, a good movie that nonetheless completely bombed at the box office.

Marwen, for better or worse, feels almost like a personal statement from the director. It centers on an artist who uses an alternate world as a kind of coping mechanism, and it examines the perils of becoming lost in such a world, to some degree. But it also features the artist becoming so certain of his alternate reality that he forgets that other human beings exist and have their own drives and desires, and Zemeckis casts his wife, Leslie Zemeckis, as Mark’s favorite actress, who stars in pornographic films. There’s a lot going on, is all I’m saying.

The film’s talent extends beyond Zemeckis, though. In addition to Carell, the film stars Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Eiza González, Janelle Monáe, and Gwendoline Christie as a band of remarkable women who helped Mark recover from the attack (which resulted in him losing all memories from before the attack, as well as his ability to draw and many other fine motor skills).

But then instead of letting them play their actual characters, Welcome to Marwen mostly reduces these women to their roles in Mark’s story, then turns them into hypersexualized dolls who populate the tiny, fictional town of Marwen.

The movie also stars Diane Kruger as, um, a Belgian witch who haunts the town? And who symbolizes a certain part of Mark’s recovery process that is revealed so ridiculously that I almost want to spoil it here but won’t. (The actress never once appears as herself, only as a computer-animated doll.)

I understand that the filmmakers are constrained by reality. The real Mark Hogancamp built a village in his backyard that he filled with often hypersexualized versions of people he knew in real life. He really did name it Marwencol, after a portmanteau that stitched together his name with those of two women he loved who maybe didn’t return that love as fully as he might have liked. He liked to cross-dress, but only, it would seem, by wearing high heels (and, the documentary implies, stockings).

But these real-life details make the movie’s choices regarding how it adapts its women all the more puzzling. Screenwriters Caroline Thompson and Zemeckis himself never solve the conundrum of why, for instance, Mark’s new next-door neighbor Nicol (Mann), who is getting out of what seems to be a toxic, possibly abusive relationship and looking for a fresh start, wouldn’t run screaming from Mark the very moment he introduced a doll that looked just like her, had the same name as her, and fell deeply in love with Mark’s doll avatar immediately.

To be sure, Mann’s performance contains hints about just how much Nicol understands of Marwen (and if you have seen the documentary, you can 100 percent see why her name ends in -col and not -cole) and just how much compassion she feels for Mark. But the movie really only presents any of the women in Mark’s life through his point of view, which turns them into plot devices in a movie that features a climactic moment where one character shouts, “Women are the saviors of the world!”

This approach also strands Carell, who is pretty good, I think. (Though other critics hated his performance, so I may be the only person to think this.) He does his level best to make sense of a character who is intentionally depicted as cryptic for much of the movie, even if that creative decision makes it impossible to understand why all the other characters like him, outside of the fact that they live in a Movie Small Town, where everybody is nice unless they’re Nazis who’ll beat you up for being a man who wears high heels.

It’s so impossible to determine what Welcome to Marwen is going for because, well, the movie itself doesn’t seem to understand. The creative team knows, I think, that the film’s sexual politics are confused, and Zemeckis really tries to avoid the long tradition of basing cinematic comedy on men in women’s clothes (though the audience at my screening still snickered at Mark in his heels, so maybe these ideas are just too ingrained to fully overcome). But it throws up its hands and says, “Oh, well,” instead of digging in. It’s the worst movie just about everybody involved in it has ever made.

Welcome to Marwen opens in theaters everywhere December 21.