With most movies, even the bad ones, you can imagine the elevator pitch that got them green-lit. Mortal Engines: It’s Mad Max for The Hunger Games set (and for the people who go to steampunk conventions); Holmes & Watson: It’s Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly doing accents; Bird Box: It’s A Quiet Place. But there’s one movie this holiday season that, for the life of me, I cannot match with a plausible pitch: Welcome to Marwen, a half-live-action, half-animated adaptation of a little-known documentary, about a man (Steve Carell) who copes with a traumatic assault by building a World War II–era town using figurines. The real-life story is fascinating — hence the documentary — but the execution of Welcome to Marwen, the fact that you see this guy …
… about as much as you see the actual Carell, really makes you wonder. (Shockingly, Welcome to Marwen may be the biggest flop of 2018.) Who was this movie for? Who thought this was a good idea? While we’re asking questions, I have a few (“few”) more that I wrote down while watching Welcome to Marwen on opening night.
1. It’s bad that I’m one of four people in this theater, right?
2. What sequence of events led these three other people to buy a ticket? I was goaded into seeing Welcome to Marwen by this great website (though, when Don Draper yelled “That’s what the money’s for!” I never quite imagined the next line would be: “To go see CGI Steve Carell!”); isn’t there a Christmas party they could have gone to instead? Or a cliff they could have thrown $15 off of?
3. Is it bad that the trailers playing ahead of Welcome to Marwen are all over the place? Generally, trailers mimic what’s to come, which makes sense: People paying for Aquaman probably want to see more superheroes, and people paying for The Favourite probably want to see more Oscar hopefuls. But ahead of Welcome to Marwen, there was a trailer for a Christian movie called Breakthrough, for Destroyer, for the Kevin Hart–Bryan Cranston feel-good comedy The Upside, for the Liam Neeson snowplow action movie, for the Rebel Wilson meta-rom-com, for the Downton Abbey movie, and for the new M. Night Shyamalan movie. This suggests that literally no one — not even studios — knows who this movie is for.
4. Welcome to Marwen opens as an animated movie. Why has Robert Zemeckis fallen in love with the uncanny valley? Let’s take a look at four of his most recent movies:
The Polar Express (2004)
A Christmas Carol (2009)
Welcome to Marwen (2018)
5. Was there a moment during the production of Flight when Zemeckis was like, “All right, great, now we just need to animate Denzel crashing this plane”?
6. Why, after nearly a decade of laying off the weird CGI, did Zemeckis come back?
7. And who let him?!
8. Why does Leslie Mann’s character own only summer dresses?
9. My biggest question heading into this movie was: How would they handle the women’s shoes stuff? Some background: A big part of the documentary Marwencol is about Mark Hogancamp’s love of women’s shoes, and how the obsession defined who he was, before and after he was brutally beaten. One of my lasting memories of the movie is Hogancamp wearing oxfords in New York City and bemoaning, “Fuckin’ man shoes.” The trailers for Welcome to Marwen, though, are, perhaps unsurprisingly, extremely light on this subject; the only hint of it comes in a couple blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots of Doll Steve Carell wearing high heels. It’s more than a little shocking, then, that the actual movie leans VERY HARD INTO THE WOMEN’S SHOES STUFF. Doll Steve Carell puts on a pair of high heels in the first two minutes of the movie; a woman gives Real Steve Carell a pair of espadrilles in an early scene; later on in the movie, Doll Steve Carell tells Doll Leslie Mann that, “I like wearing women’s shoes because they make me feel closer to the essence of dames — and I. LOVE. DAMES.”
10. This is all fine, but can you imagine how blindsided people who saw Welcome to Marwen without first seeing Marwencol were?
11. What’s going on with Steve Carell’s necklace?
12. And where can I buy it?
13. What’s up with Zemeckis and bad wigs?
14. Was it clear from the trailers that Janelle Monáe and Gwendoline Christie were going to be in only one scene each?
15. And that Christie was going to be attempting a Russian accent? (I’m pretty sure these things weren’t clear.)
16. Do I want to see the behind-the-scenes footage of Carell, Monáe, Christie, and Mann recording voiceovers for this movie, or would that ruin all of them for me forever?
16. Is it a little creepy watching Real Steve Carell seductively pull back the hair of a doll that he bought in a store yet looks exactly like Leslie Mann? (Yes, yes it is.)
17. Did I just hear one of the three other people in this theater mutter “NO!” during a particularly awkward scene? (Yes, yes I did.)
18. Are Doll Steve Carell and Doll Leslie Mann about to fuck?
19. Oh my god, please no?
21. OK, phew: Nazis raided Marwen again and saved the movie from literally becoming Team America: World Police — but weren’t we cutting it WAY too close?
22. Why are there so many parallels between this movie and The 40-Year-Old Virgin? It’s Steve Carell and Leslie Mann; Steve Carell is bad with women; Steve Carell wakes up screaming from nightmares in both movies; and there’s this:
23. Shouldn’t they have tried to avoid this, maybe by not casting Steve Carell? It seems like it undercuts the serious nature of the subject matter. (The previous sentence is also my entire review of Welcome to Marwen.)
24. Are they really trying to pull off an opioid addiction allegory? (With hindsight, I can answer this myself: Yes, they are trying to pull off an opioid addiction allegory. Amid all of the WWII dolls, there’s a witch doll named Deja that, we’re told, ruins and kills everything — she has a goth-y vibe, sits on a pedestal in Real Steve Carell’s living room, and has a streak of hair that’s the same color as the pain pills Russian Gwendoline Christie warns Real Steve Carell not to abuse. At one point, in a dream, she orders him to build her a time machine, so he buys a lava lamp and tapes it to a miniature DeLorean. Then, during the movie’s climax, scenes cut between Real Steve Carell and Doll Steve Carell, as the former pours his pills into a garbage disposal while the latter kills Deja. The way the scene is edited, you’re meant to think that Steve Carell is about to die by suicide, but actually … it’s a triumphant moment? To echo the lady in my theater: No.)
25. Is this the end of the Zemeckis semicartoon era? With all due respect to the director of Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away, it may be time for him to hang up the CGI. Since Cast Away in 2000, he’s released seven major movies. Only two of them have led the box office in their first weeks (Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, whose biggest competition was Michael Jackson’s This Is It); two have been massive flops (The Walk and Welcome to Marwen); aside from Flight, all of them have needed the international markets to turn a profit (well, until Marwen, which will almost definitely lose money); and on average they’ve scored about 61 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with Marwen on the low end of the scale at 26 percent. Zemeckis is making medium-reviewed movies that barely have an audience, and Marwen is a remarkable nadir. I still don’t know what he was going for, and no matter how many questions I ask, I never will.