Thursday, 27 December 2018

Welcome To Marwen: The figure picture

Like many children of the '80s, my life was nudged in a specific direction by Bob Zemeckis and his little film about the boy whose mum tried to fuck him in the past. Zemeckis channelled 1.21 gigawatts of power into my interest in cinema, and I repaid him by watching everything else he made, up to and including Beowulf. But his forays into motion capture left me as cold as CG Tom Hanks' dead doll's eyes, and forgive me father, for I have forsaken Bob this past decade; not one of his post-2007 films have passed mine eyes.

But then along came Welcome To Marwen, with its intriguing blend of motion capture and live action, and its bizarre claim to be based on a true story despite having a trailer full of scenes that appeared to be from a spectacularly violent, war-movie version of Toy Story, and like Doc Brown I figured: what the hell.
Steve Carell engages Serious Steve Mode for his role as Mark Hogancamp, a lonely and apparently eccentric man who takes photos of dolls posed in WWII costumes and situations, and who has a thing for women's shoes. Hogancamp's true story was told - reasonably well, by all accounts (I haven't seen it) - in Marwencol, a 2010 documentary that provided the inspiration for Zemeckis' film. The reasons for Hogancamp's model behaviour are undeniably fascinating and tragic, but the first problem with Welcome To Marwen is that it takes two hours to explain them when they could have been dealt with in a ten-minute prologue. This has two immediate effects: firstly, to summarise the premise here would count as a spoiler for the whole film; secondly, Zemeckis needs to pad out the running time somehow. And if there's one thing Hogancamp's story doesn't have that Bob Zemeckis can add, it's a metric fucktonne of motion capture action sequences.

And so about half of Welcome To Marwen consists of those war-movie Toy Story scenes, in which 'Hogie', a heroic GI action figure in 1940s Belgium (who looks suspiciously like Steve Carell) is repeatedly captured by Nazi action figures, then rescued by a collection of sexy female action figures who kill the Nazis in increasingly violent fashion. Hogancamp merely photographed these imagined stories; Zemeckis splashes them on the screen in stunningly-realised fantasy sequences that are undeniably fun to watch, but which add little to the film's emotional core that the photographs don't. In fact these sequences unbalance the story, creating a weird tonal mixture of effects-driven action comedy and weighty drama that is going to be a nightmare to sell to audiences. Here's a film that wants to cover transvestism, Neo-Nazism, hate crime, violence as a solution, substance abuse, PTSD and other assorted mental health issues, but at the same time foregrounds cutting-edge CG action and visual gags. It's certainly not boring, but it is a little uncomfortable.
Carell is fine as Hogancamp (although clearly has an absolute ball as his 1/6th scale alter-ego), and Leslie Mann is wonderful as his near-mythically non-judgemental neighbour Nicol, but every other character is a cliché of some kind or other - Gwendoline Christie's Russian carer, for example, is teeth-itchingly ill-advised. Zemeckis' script, co-written with Caroline Thompson, is clunky and obvious at times: a barman drops a lead weight of exposition on a character who is only there to receive that exposition on our behalf, for example, and unnecessary narrative devices are crowbarred in to ramp up dramatic tension. Good Characters 100% accept Mark for who he is while Bad Characters 100% reject him for being a weirdo, as if the script is terrified of offending anyone with nuance. And Zemeckis can't resist a distractingly meta, extended Back To The Future-referencing gag which made me wonder if he'd lobbed it in after watching Ready Player One.

There's a truly original and inspiring film in here somewhere, but you can't help thinking it's the one that somebody else made eight years ago. Hogancamp deserves to be acknowledged for his art and the events that led him to create it, but he probably didn't deserve to have those events diminished by embellishing them with button-pushing melodrama and a side order of mega-budget kids' holiday filler. Welcome To Marwen isn't a total failure while you're watching it, and if more people look up Mark Hogancamp as a result then all well and good. But I'm fairly sure Bob Zemeckis can do better than this, and I hope it's not another ten years before I can be arsed to find out.

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