I'd be at a critics' function or at a party or in a screening room where other reviewers were huddled in a circle savaging a certain film. One of the least attractive qualities of American movie critics is their penchant for forming a lynch mob in response to a shared contempt for a certain film.
It isn't pretty.
Anyway, when it came my turn to weigh in on the reviled movie, I'd inevitably invoke four little words - "Well, I like it." I lost a lot of credibility when I did that but I felt emboldened, empowered. It was cathartic.
Four of the most popular (or unpopular) victims of what I call "critics' wrath" are Sam Mendes' "American Beauty" (1999), Rob Marshall's "Chicago" (2002), Paul Haggis' "Crash" (2004) and Shawn Levy's "This Is Where I Leave You" (2014). Reviewers went after each of those titles as if they were protecting moviegoers from something the approximate size of a world war. Their response, particularly towards something as trivial as "This Is Where I Leave You," was a tad excessive, to put it mildly.
But throughout the decades, there have been some truly amazing films that have been hastily panned, simply because critics didn't understand what they were reviewing. Critics regularly complain about the lack of originality and daring in films, but when they're confronted with just that, they seem to freak out and go in for the kill. A case in point:
Arthur Penn's "Bonnie & Clyde" (1967).
With the exception of Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, Penn's film was dismissed and degraded by major critics - chief among them Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and Joe Morgenstern of Newsweek. Morgenstern, who at 86 is still reviewing films, retracted his pan in the next issue of Newsweek. Crowther, who died in 1981 at age 75, stood firm.
Among the major film achievements that have been dismissed and derided are Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and "Marnie," Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong," John Huston's "The Misfits," Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love," Howard Hawks' "Monkey Business," Elaine May's "Ishtar," John Boorman's "Exorcist II: The Heretic," Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart," Darren Aronofsky’s "mother!," Robert Wise's "Star!," Mike Nichols' "Day of the Dolphin," Steven Spielberg's "1941" and, most notably, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra."
All "hated" films, which is bizarre when one considers the execrable junk that critics sit through week after week and, sometimes, actually endorse.
These are films that took risks, something that one could hardly say about any recent Oscar winner. Quick! I challenge you to name the last three Best Picture winners. You probably can't because, after the celebration dies down, most Oscar winners prove to be not very memorable.
Given that this site is devoted largely to movies that have been unpopular and mostly misunderstood, "Welcome to Marwen" fits right in - and one of the qualities that I like and admire about the film is just how inscrutable it is, defying easy pigeon-holing. It's elusive and not exactly "audience-friendly" - or, at least, it's audience-friendly in an entirely different way.
Or maybe not.
It marches to its own beat. Which probably also made it a tough sell for Universal. Its trailer which played in theaters for months before it opened failed to capture just how special it is. "Welcome to Marwen" was made to look like a sappy TV movie about a grown man who plays with dolls.
In short, it looked off-putting.
The film is about Mark Hogancamp, an illustrator whose work and tragic situation are also the subjects of Jeff Malmberg's 2010 documentary, "Marwencol." Hogancamp was viciously attacked outside a bar by five men after he joked (while drunk) about his preference for women's shoes.They called him the usual ugly names and beat and kicked him until his past disappeared from his brain. He was left with no memory.
Or only bits and pieces of it.
Steve Carell plays Hogancamp as both a wounded man and, via some incredible CGI, as a vainglorious doll - a daring soldier. He is surrounded both in real life and in his fantasy world by women who care about him - and fight for him. While the movie could have simply been an inspiration piece about a broken man's valiant and unusual attempts to heal himself, it is much more a celebration of women and the strength of their nurturing.
And Zemeckis doesn't use the fantasy sequences sparingly either. His film is equal parts of realism and fantastic imagery. And Carell and company play their roles alternately as human beings and as plastic facsimiles.
Speaking of Carell, he had a wealth of opportunities during the holiday season, appearing in no less than three films - "Beautiful Boy," "Vice" and "Welcome to Marwen" - and doing incredible work in each, never repeating himself. Is there any role that this man can't play? He's a great actor.
As for the film itself, it works both as a major achievement and as an acquired taste, an uneasy combination that has historically put past similar films on the periphery for a while (ok, for decades) but that also has made them ripe for rediscovery, reassessment and belated praise. I've a hunch that this is what "Welcome to Marwen" will experience. It should.
Note in Passing: And a shout-out for Leslie Mann, who delivers a nuanced performance, her best to date, as Hogancamp's neighbor - the one woman whom he (mistakenly) believes is his salvation.
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