Robert Zemeckis is a director who goes big or goes home. And getting to tinker with new toys has often seemed to drive him to projects. But in Welcome to Marwen, his characters are literally toys, and the big emotional sweep feels as phony as those toys.
Marwencol was one of the most powerful documentaries of the decade, and its transition to a fictional film struggles to have the same emotional resonance. There's far too much interesting stuff happening in this movie to be an all-out disaster, or one of the year's worst movies, as many critics have called it. It's an ambitious failure, and I can always find a little room in my heart for many of those.
Steve Carell plays Mark Hogencamp, an artist who recreates elaborate World War II scenes with detailed figures he's modified to resemble himself and the women in his life, including his rehab nurse (Janelle Monáe), his co-worker (Eisa González) and his best friend (Merritt Wever). He survived a vicious gang beating, and now uses these action figures as a form of play therapy. When the exceedingly nice Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street, Mark's infatuation tips over into obsession. The critic Dave Kehr has compared this Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, but the key difference is that Zemeckis still wants us to sympathize with Mark, even as imagination and friendship gives way to delusion.
The film also adds a subplot about Nicol's abusive ex that goes nowhere, and it doesn't do anything with the fact that Mark's fictional and real-life attackers are both Nazis. But its biggest sin is that all the women of Marwen are reduced to playthings. These women are supposed to be important in Mark's life, but most are given only brief flashbacks, and too often their doll counterparts are forced into situations where they're under threat of sexual violence.
And I'm still torn on Carell's performance. There's no doubt he's giving it his all. But he can't sell the combo of lovable goofball and traumatized victim. It's the real-life scenes that fall flat, drably directed. The motion-capture shootouts are often riveting. It made me wish Zemeckis would have left this story alone and just made another World War II movie. His last one (Allied) was an underrated gem. Maybe next time he won't split the difference.