Film & TV

Who Approved This Bizarre Steve Carell Movie?

Welcome to Marwen (Universal Pictures)
If you like to complain that studio movies have gotten stale and formulaic, here’s your punishment.

Ordinarily I can be persuaded to issue some light mockery of a bad movie, but Welcome to Marwen is such a smushed-puppy of a film that I don’t want to make fun of it; I want to know where I can send flowers.

This theater-emptier must be one of the most bizarrely misconceived attempts at blockbuster entertainment ever released by a major studio. It’s directed by Robert Zemeckis, who, on the strength of the Back to the Future movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Cast Away, and Forrest Gump, has made more money than I’ll see in 40 lifetimes. Yet I feel sorry for him. I feel like sending a mental-health counselor around to see if he’s all right.

Those who complain that studio movies have gotten stale and formulaic, here’s your punishment: The movie begins with a cross-dressing World War II Ken doll who looks like Steve Carell getting accosted by Nazis but rescued by a squadron of gun-toting Resistance Barbies.

The Carell figurine, rendered in that uncanny-valley motion-capture animation that Zemeckis, and Zemeckis alone, thinks is brilliant (Beowulf, The Polar Express, the Jim Carrey version of A Christmas Carol), is a stand-in for a physically and mentally broken man named Mark Hogancamp who lives in this fantasy world because he’s so adrift in the real one. Hogancamp (a real person who lives in upstate New York and was previously the subject of the 2010 documentary Marwencol) was an illustrator who was beaten nearly to death by some guys in a bar after mentioning that he liked to wear ladies’ shoes. When he woke up, he couldn’t remember any personal details about his life and had lost the ability to draw. So now he obsessively stages pulpy WWII adventure scenarios in dollhouses he has built in his yard and professionally photographs them for a planned gallery exhibit.

The female dolls are sexy, glammed-up versions of women he knows from town. Often they wind up topless. The real women indulge Mark heroically — women who are amazingly forbearing with weirdo men being a Hollywood staple — but, sensing that he’s on shaky ground, Zemeckis throws in what he imagines to be an applause line about how “Women are the saviors of the world.” Please. Save your empty slogans for a movie that doesn’t express a preference for Barbie versions of actual women.

Carell’s attraction to sad-sack characters is getting to be a bit of a tic, the 2010s equivalent of Sylvester Stallone’s 1980s penchant for steroid-infused he-men. He and Zemeckis, who (come to think of it) has made a lot of movies featuring ingenious but mentally wounded men, seem to be enabling each other here, urging each other on to cinematic disaster. I cringed throughout at Mark’s nonstop piteousness, but when Zemeckis, late in the movie, tried to gin up some excitement by making an extended reference to Back to the Future, I cringed within a cringe. Sitting through this movie is like spending two hours humoring an emotionally unbalanced person, hoping he won’t hurt himself.

Mark is a heterosexual whose fondness for ladies’ shoes is tied up in a (pathetic, disturbing) need to capture the essence of women and keep it in his closet, where he lovingly stores 287 pairs. Hey, no red flags there! He falls for a pretty new neighbor (Leslie Mann) who willingly gives him some of her old pumps as a token of friendship. Naturally she isn’t on the same emotional page as this shattered man.

But who would be? Mark is barely functional, and the violent doll adventures he engineers — like a PTSD Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — eat up half the movie without accomplishing anything. They aren’t wondrous or exciting or redemptive. They aren’t funny, knowing what we know about the psychic damage of which they are a reflection. Only in tiny, barely noticeable ways do they advance the main story. Chiefly they seem intended as eye candy in hopes of drawing some children to the movie. Good luck with that. “Olivia, Jackson, let’s all go see this movie about a brain-damaged middle-aged loner and his weird collection of dolls and ladies’ shoes!” Also, Mark watches a lot of porn. A kids’ movie this is not. It’s rated PG-13. It should have been rated R on thematic grounds alone.

Welcome to Marwen must have been conceived as a healing-through-art story about a scarred man’s road back to mental health using the transformative power of imagination. But it doesn’t come off that way at all. Mark’s character arc is basically a straight line. He musters the courage to make a statement in court in the presence of his attackers, but though the climactic courtroom scene is the essence of many a movie, this one has almost zero impact (the guilt of the accused has been firmly established), and, as with every other scene in the movie, Mark’s evident suffering makes it hard to sit through. All such problems should have been obvious in the development stage. I’m amazed that Welcome to Marwen even got made.