Film Review: “Welcome to Marwen”

Starring: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann and Merritt Wever
Directed By: Robert Zemeckis
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Universal Pictures

Back in 2015, director Robert Zemeckis brought the story of Philippe Petit to life in “The Walk.” It was a visually stunning film with a gripping story that was accompanied by a sore reminder at the core of its story, the Twin Towers in New York City. It was an awe inspiring flick that was equally joyful and tragic. That kind of nuance has been lost from Zemeckis’ touch in 2018 with his latest film, “Welcome to Marwen.”

I mention “The Walk” because it came seven years after the gripping documentary, “Man on Wire,” which many would agree is the better story of Petit. This time around, Zemeckis is crafting another story in the shadow of a documentary. Back in 2010, “Marwencol” brought the world the story of Mark Hogancamp, a man who finds solace and comfort in dolls and a miniature city he built outside his residence after a vicious attack that robbed him of thousands of precious memories from his previous life. It’s a humbling and breathtaking story that has been robbed of its magic in “Welcome to Marwen.”

Steve Carell does bring that humble nature and PTSD terror to Hogancamp’s story, but it comes up short once Zemeckis’ starts monkeying with the mechanics. About a third of the film is told through the eyes of the dolls that Hogancamp craft’s, as well as their surroundings. These scenes are a little jarring, as they come to life to fill in a plot point, or in Hogancamp’s mind, during a restless night of sleep. These scenes feel out of sorts with the film because they pop-up like a jump scare or are inadequately shoehorned in alongside real-life events.

While it’s a creative concept, with the dolls literally coming to life and talking to Hogancamp or playing out parallels in his life, they muddy the storytelling waters. Zemeckis’ attempt to be clever, end up diluting the various themes of Hogancamp’s story, one that is about recovery, acceptance and the mental struggles that victims of vicious attacks go through. Also undercutting these serious subjects is misplaced humor that disjoints the overall narrative.

Moments that should move you emotionally fall short because of how tonally misshaped “Welcome to Marwen” is. The doll sequences become overbearing, stretching out the story, with several aimless subplots and awkward moments that come off unintentionally funny as opposed to sympathetic. I can’t complete dislike something that comes from a good place, but it’s understandable if someone walks out of this movie confused or bothered by its half-hearted attempts at compassion.

New York Film Fest Review: The Walk

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 124 minutes
Sony, TriStar

Our Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars

When I saw James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man On Wire, I recall my heart racing. Just listening to Philippe Petit rapid fire recounting his tight rope walk between the Twin Towers, and the amount of sheer luck that his plans hinged on, was exhilarating. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit popped up on the top of the torch of the Statue of Liberty in the opening of Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk to narrate the exact same tale, well exhilarated is not the word I’d use. In a perfect world, audiences could see the breathtaking wire walking sequence that Zemeckis has crafted appended to something as thrilling as that Oscar-winning documentary but of course this is not a perfect world. As Gordon-Levitt’s Petit would say through outrageous French accent, c’est la vie. In moving from Man on Wire to The Walk, we must revisit Petit’s spectacular tight rope act with a hefty side of fromage.

The year is 1974 and French street performer Petit, is enamored with wire walking. During his search for more places to hang his wire, he finds a newspaper heralding the nearly-completed Twin Towers in New York City. They’re perfect and he becomes obsessed with the idea of walking between them. In racing towards this vision, Zemeckis takes us through a candy colored vision of the France from the countryside to the circus and Paris. It all culminates in a newsworthy walk between the two towers of the Notre Dame cathedral–a death defying feat unto itself, presented here as a quick bit of exposition. Along the way he picks up French ‘accomplices’ in girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon in a thankless role), a photographer (Clément Sibony) and eccentric circus mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) who pleads with Petit to use a safety harness (he won’t). For all the fast paced camera work and bustling Parisian unicycle rides, this first act drags under Petit’s over aggressive narration. In light of the Marsh documentary where the vibrant real Petit told his own story, my mind truly boggled at having this level of wall to wall voice over. For audience members who have not seen the doc, your tolerance may be higher than mine. If anything I miss the different voices from Man on Wire, because here doubt by other characters is treated as repressing an excitable artist. His success is taken as a foregone conclusion.

In 1970s New York, the film takes on more of the heist-like mood that was established in Marsh’s documentary and the film finally takes off. Petit enlists his American accomplices and the element of suspense is restored while Petit and co employ ‘spywork’ to figure out the inner workings of the massive construction site. The level of lax security and staff eluded with charm and confidence of the crew is really something to see from a post-9/11 perspective and is one of the essential elements to Petit’s being a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. The biggest hurdle is getting from the sky lobbies to the roof and ensuring the roof is free of guards. Here Zemeckis is great at giving us what can only be described as warm up acrophobia as the team contends with incomplete elevator shafts in the build up to the final walk across the void. That walk is undeniably breath taking and seeing it with a crowd in a theater, the level of tensed muscles was strongly felt. And the walk is not short either. As Petit the artist felt more and more connected to the wire and the towers, the more liberties he takes up there. And the sequence is stunning in spite of Petit remaining on hand to tell us how stunning it is.

With the 3D walk itself being worth price of admission, more so in vertigo-inducing IMAX, and poignant final moments that especially resonated with the New York Film Fest crowd, Zemeckis has crafted a spectacle to be sure even if the rest of the film will likely not stand the same test of time that the 2008 documentary has.

The Walk opens in limited IMAX on September 30th with a wide release on October 9th.


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