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Review: Imitation of Life—Robert Zemeckis’ “Welcome to Marwen”

Live action reality and motion-captured WW2 fantasy combine in this eccentric adaptation of a true story by the director of Forrest Gump.
Don't you agree that there is something squalid in defending the likes of Robert Zemeckis? You know the guy won the Best Director Oscar, right? Indeed, one need only glance at virtually any woke online discussion of Back to the Future (1985) or Forrest Gump (1994) to see the reflexive disgust of a whole subset of aging cinephiles—from which I do not exempt myself—in action. Sift through his filmography. On one side, there’s the string of good-natured childhood touchstones that bring with them the baggage of a geeky cinephilic adolescence. On the other, the desert in which one painful commercial failure after another lie like bones in the blistering sun. These days, each new Zemeckis release is greeted with an embarrassed, if qualified shrug of the shoulders.
Isn’t it banal, too, to have to admit that you find all the good movies of the year, well, listless, without merit? And then only to grant that, for you—supposedly a person in possession of some critical faculties—Zemeckis' weird doll movie is in fact the thing that, in the final count, makes it through the gate? To insist once more that there is a serious, sad, even bitter phantom movie lurking a pace out of view. Do not mistake my shame for a lack of resolve; he is a great filmmaker, to be sure. But clearly so uncool.
In Zemeckis movies new and old, it is clear now that you find the exact same formula of schmaltz and ironic detachment—the man's commercial instincts have changed, and so perhaps have the times. (Indeed, on a good day, I would argue there's a similar chemical reaction going on in the equally uncool—though currently celebrated—movies of one Christian Petzold.) Clearly, this once-renowned Zemeckisian admixture is only now coming home to roost. What the (probably correct) Gump-bashers gloss over is precisely the way this uncomfortable double-bind plays out as an ever-present tension in the films themselves. What to make of the uncanniness that is at the heart of each and every moment of beauty and joy in a Zemeckis movie? The lavish, queasy fantasia of Santa Claus' arrival in his great The Polar Express (2004) contrasts with the horrified expression of the protagonist, a little boy for whom the spectacle represents a sort of unknown violence, all the while encircled by a mass of elves shrieking in unison and preparing Santa's sleigh. Cast Away (2000) ends with the long-separated Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt characters confessing their undying love for one another in the pouring rain, only to resolve a half-minute later not to act on these same impulses once they get out of this same rain—it is a withdrawal from indulgence that characterizes so many of these movies' surprisingly sober conclusions.
Like Forrest Gump, Steve Carrell's rube in Welcome to Marwen, Mark Hogancamp, spends his days fantasizing himself as the hapless hero of a slew of familiar behind-enemy-lines set-ups. Unlike Gump, Hogancamp’s is a Second World War heroism ("Well, at least we were the good guys in that one," he says), and indeed is a heroism in miniature. Hogancamp—a real-life eccentric, model-maker, and star of this movie’s documentary progenitor Marwencol (2010)—built and imagined a model world set during the war in which he exists as both the personification of machismo (resolute, physically buff, caustic, corny) as well as an unambiguous avatar of his own sexual, temperamental ambiguities. His quotidian life, inching through his recovery from a debilitating assault, comprise a series of struggles to perform even basic tasks and to interact socially. In the world constructed in his yard—in the film, this is wholly computer animated—there’s none of the same fearfulness and enervating social anxiety. Chiefly, it is a universe where valiant American pilots are shot out of the air while yelling things like, “It’s practically the Fourth of July up here!” Bloodthirsty Nazis with a flair for the theatrical. Taverns in which firefights break out at the peak of tension, et cetera. This other realm is one in which he is emboldened to act out his transvestism without fear of reproach, where any perceived threats to his self-image as both a wearer of women's shoes and a tough guy are as invisible to others as they are, seemingly, to him. Part of what makes the movie feel so off-kilter and also what makes it so special is that Zemeckis never builds an arc for Mark to choose one over the other, to somehow compromise or compartmentalize the various contradictory aspects of his vision and personality.
Likewise, the barbie dolls that fight alongside (and lust after) the Mark-surrogate are themselves both rather complicated embodiments of his anxieties and sexual hang-ups (quite literally, they are simulacra of extant and imagined women from his daily life, each seemingly O.K. with his overt sexualization of their bodies), as well as liberated figures in their own right. The actresses—Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Gwendoline Christie, Zemeckis’ wife Leslie—revel as much in the caricatural quality of their characters as does Carrell and as does their director in the cartoonish conception of the sequences themselves; everybody seems to both be in on the joke as well as jarringly committed to the most maudlin, sentimental demands of the material. Even more confusingly, Zemeckis does not withdraw from war violence above and beyond the call of that particular genre. An extended fantasy set-up with a timid milkmaid, immaculately staged in radiant motion-captured space, leads... to a sudden, brutal payoff and a churlish, self-conscious one-liner by Carrell. A campy reference to the time machine in Back to the Future becomes (a) the centerpiece of an incredibly dense and sophisticated action sequence, and (b) the setting for Hogancamp to viciously slash at a Nazi's neck with a stiletto.
In an opening sequence concocted as an excuse for Carrell-Zemeckis to zealously bask in war movie clichés, there is a pronounced tonal whiplash as the squad of dolls appear in the nick of time to save the Hogancamp character from a beating by Wehrmacht officers, slaughtering these same men in a hail of bullets. Zemeckis revels in the violent deaths of the fascists and in the righteous fury of the women doing the killing, lingering salaciously on the bodies as they are bloodlessly shredded by bullets. And indeed, in kind of the same way, there is something strange and lively about the decision to foreground the sexuality of these same dolls in such a flagrant, incautious, clever way; juxtaposed as these depictions are with the real-life story, with the women un-computerized, un-airbrushed, un-tweaked, the frankness of the sexualization practically becomes a subject in itself.
Obviously, this frankness was clearly ill-advised to all but Robert Zemeckis and whoever green-lit this anomalous project. For those of us delighted by such unadorned weirdness, Welcome to Marwen contains multitudes: Carrell delivering a chillingly uninflected monologue about shoes being "the essence of women;” an agonizing scene where he proposes to his neighbor that's on par with De Niro taking Cybil Shepard to a porn movie in Taxi Driver; an overwhelming PTSD flashback punctuated by a tone-deaf exchange confusing the word “ammo” for “gumbo.” Indeed, that's chiefly the pull of this movie. It is a Spielbergian redemption fable in which all the nasty elements that lurk in the background of those films, the darkness that Zemeckis’ mentor is so good at invisibly assimilating into spectacle, are dragged kicking and screaming into the light.
Pointedly, Zemeckis does not reconcile any of the contradictions in passages where the zaniness and atonality threatens to disrupt the smooth operation of the storytelling. In that sense, he’s a distant cousin of the Douglas Sirk of Magnificent Obsession (1954); like Sirk, he rolls with the punches, incessantly moving forward, stone-faced. Welcome to Marwen, though highly imperfect, is the film of an immoderate, quixotic commercial artist, full of risk and failure, with a tin-ear to what constitutes popular appeal, and shot through with passages of perplexing power and grace. For most, its mishmash of tones—as well as a front-and-center Steve Carrell schtick without the usual patina of ironic remove—is enough to cause them to reach for their coat. Of course, then, I loved it.

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