What critics had to say about ‘Welcome to Marwen’

Steve Carell's latest won't be the awards season contender some had hoped.

Steve Carell in "Welcome to Marwen." –Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures

Steve Carell was supposed to have a banner awards season in 2018. The Acton native starred in three movies that all seemed poised to be awards contenders: the already released “Beautiful Boy,” the upcoming “Vice,” and “Welcome to Marwen,” which hit theaters Thursday evening.

“Welcome to Marwen” is based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp (played by Carell), a man whose life was shattered in 2000 after he was beaten within an inch of his life outside of a bar. Hogancamp later awoke from a nine-day coma with no memory of who he was or how to perform basic human functions. To cope with the overwhelming trauma, Hogancamp built an elaborate 1/6-scale model of a World War II village populated by doll versions of people he knew in real life.

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On its face “Marwen” seems to have potential as a feel-good story tailor-made for awards voters. But if early reviews are any indication, something went very, very wrong along the way. At the time of this article’s publication, the film held a 24 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

That said, a single number can’t adequately capture the range of critical response, and many of the reviews coded as “fresh” or “rotten” by the critic aggregation site have a bit more nuance — or, in some cases, rotten isn’t a sufficiently negative adjective to describe the reviews. To help you judge whether to head to theaters this weekend to see the movie, here’s what some of the top film critics are saying, both good and bad, about “Welcome to Marwen.”

The Good

Newsday’s Rafer Guzmán wrote that Carell “perfectly captures” Hogancamp, while Leslie Mann is “charming” as the the new neighbor who inspires one of Hogancamp’s dolls.

“Welcome to Marwen” is Zemeckis’ attempt to turn the eccentric Hogancamp into the hero of a Hollywood film and use state-of-the-art technology to bring his artistic fantasies to life. By and large, it works. Carell perfectly captures Hogancamp’s awkwardness and childlike innocence (the beating erased virtually all his memories). Leslie Mann is charming as Nicol, a new arrival to upstate Kingston, where Hogancamp lives.

 

The Star-Tribune’s Cynthia Dickison had similar praise for Carell’s and Mann’s performances.

Carell fully taps into the needy outsider that has informed more than a few of his roles. A viewer’s tolerance for such a sad sack might vary, but he’s believably touching as a yearning and damaged soul. Mann bears a heavy burden as the romantic focus, but manages to avoid making Nicol saccharine and, dare we say, plastic.

 

The So-So

A.O. Scott of The New York Times couldn’t stop thinking about the similarities between Zemeckis, a director who has spent years working in the uncanny valley between live-action and animation, and Hogancamp, a man who obsessively built his own photorealistic miniature world.

There is not much in this movie that feels authentic or fully realized, but its very strangeness makes it hard to forget or dismiss. Carell is a charming, maddening enigma, mawkish and mannered but always, somehow, a magnet for empathy. Do we ever get to know Mark Hogancamp? Not really. Not here. But still, that guy playing so intently with his toys might be onto something profound, even if you can’t quite figure out what he’s up to. I’m talking about Robert Zemeckis.

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Similar to Scott, Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post found the movie hard to forget and the comparisons between Zemeckis and Hogancamp an interesting meta-narrative.

Hogancamp was a talented illustrator before the attack rendered him unable to draw. In retreating to a world of his imagination as a way to exorcise the demons that tormented him, he ended up creating real art. I’m not sure Zemeckis’s achievement rises to the same level, but this cinematic excursion to Marwen is almost certainly a trip to someplace you haven’t been before.

 

The Ugly

The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr ended his one-star review with a plea: “Avert your eyes. We will not speak of this again.”

I regret to report that virtually nothing about “Welcome to Marwen” works. A strange and true tale of a lonely man creating art out of damage has been coated with a thick shell of digital effects and Hollywood treacle by people who should know better. The tone is almost willfully off-putting. The parts that are supposed to be cute could give you the creeps. The film is almost a Platonic ideal of how to take an emotionally transfixing real-life story and get it wrong.

 

A.A. Dowd of the AV Club said that despite Zemeckis’s long-standing career and undoubted technological skill, the film is “frankly disastrous.”

…it’s hard to watch [Zemeckis’s] movies and not wonder if he’s also not a bit like the hubristic scientists of Jurassic Park, that cautionary tale from our other maestro of CGI enchantment. To paraphrase Ian Malcolm himself: Is Zemeckis too preoccupied with whether he can do something to stop and think about whether he should? … [The question is] worth asking, again, in the face of his frankly disastrous new film, Welcome To Marwen, in which the director takes a fascinating true story of recovery through creative expression and drags it across a sticky-saccharine stretch of the uncanny valley. It’s the weirdest film of his career. One of the worst, too.

 

Lindsey Bahr of the Associated Press called the film “jaw-droppingly sexist” and “stunningly ill-conceived.”

You’ll get whiplash trying to reconcile how the movie is consistently trying to tell you it’s feminist while also so blatantly objectifying every woman in sight.

 

Sam Adams of Slate was exceedingly critical of Zemeckis, suggesting that the director is completely out of touch with both moviegoers and reality.

Welcome to Marwen is a tragedy, not because of how Mark’s story ends, but because it’s the work of a filmmaker who’s never been more sure of his craft, and never less connected to anything resembling actual human experience. The movie’s underlying theme is that fantasy is an escape from the real world that can help people return to it, but it doesn’t seem like Zemeckis is ever coming back.

 

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