It’s not hard to see why Robert Zemeckis, a director who has often been drawn to finding the “human” side of technological flimflam (“Forrest Gump,” “The Polar Express”), would want to turn the eccentric and touching 2010 documentary “Marwencol” into a dramatic feature. Like the documentary, Zemeckis’ “Welcome to Marwen” tells the story of Mark Hogancamp, a resident of Kingston, New York, who in 2000, outside a bar, was beaten by five louts to within an inch of his life. After spending nine days in a coma, he woke up, but his body was broken and he’d lost nearly all his memory. His friends, his failed marriage, his vast collection of ladies’ high-heeled shoes: He had no recall of any of it.
He took refuge from the trauma by designing and building a miniature World War II village, which he populated with uniformed dolls, many based on the people around him. (His own alter ego was a scarred leather-jacketed Army hero, like G.I. Joe played by Nicolas Cage, who drank nothing but coffee.) The Belgian village of Marwencol, along with its thicket of characters, became a wildly detailed, densely inhabited miniature landscape that Hogancamp shot with a camera as if he were capturing stills from the movie of his imagination. (His photographs suggest Cindy Sherman staging “Inglourious Basterds” as a graphic novel.) Marwencol became his great escape, but it was more than just a refuge. The outrageous and often savagely violent pulp war stories that Hogancamp made up became a replacement for the life story he’d lost. In essence, he used dolls to create new memories.
In “Marwencol,” Hogancamp’s photographs of his toy village are haunting, insanely clever, and a little creepy, because they express all the fear and desire he couldn’t express in any other way. In “Welcome to Marwen,” where Steve Carell plays Hogancamp as a kind of saintly crestfallen nerd, Zemeckis sticks close to that idea, but the Marwen sequences, which feature real-life actors digitized into shiny-plastic-skinned, socket-jointed action figures, take on a hermetic special-effects quality of their own, one that’s showy and synthetic and, frankly, a bit numbing. The film is far from incompetent, and it brims with ambition, but too much of the time what’s happening just sits there. It’s a lavishly odd concoction, like a feel-good movie for OCD miniature-world Barbie-doll fetishists.
Capt. Hogie, as Mark’s alter ego is nicknamed, hangs out at a bar called the Ruined Stocking and faces off against sallow Nazis. The sets of Marwen are also overrun by female soldiers who the movie, maybe because Zemeckis is a little uncomfortable about his hero’s antiquated fixation on “dames,” tricks up into machine-gun-blasting Tarantino action babes. (At one point they do a Rockettes goose-step to “Addicted to Love.”) The Marwen scenes are intricately staged, yet watching a character who looks and acts like a human-doll Steve Carell isn’t quite what you would call involving. It’s closer to this year’s model of “Polar Express” motion capture — not life itself but an incredible eyeball-tickling rubbery simulation of it, one that Zemeckis clearly finds enthralling. In “Welcome to Marwen,” the director is as obsessed with recreating the world of Marwen as Mark Hogancamp was with creating it in the first place. Yet that doesn’t make the movie an engrossing experience. “Welcome to Marwen” infuses a desperate story with a gizmo heart.
In the documentary, Mark Hogancamp was like an Oliver Sacks case study: a wrecked man making up his life, image by image, with extraordinary poetic coping mechanisms. In “Welcome to Marwen,” Zemeckis doesn’t soft-pedal the trauma or any of Mark’s quirks — we see the bloody cataclysm of the night he was beaten, and the movie (even more than the documentary) zeroes in on his obsession with wearing women’s shoes, an element that lends the film a bit of “Ed Wood” I-am-who-I-am whimsy.
Simply put, though, none of this results in a story with much variation or verve. What happens in Marwen is a lot more interesting visually than dramatically, and the upstate characters who become Mark’s circle of acquaintances, like Roberta (Merritt Wever), the winsome sales woman at the shop that sells the dolls, come off as bit players. The one semi-exception is Nicol, played by Leslie Mann. She moves into the house across the street and takes an instant sympathetic liking to Mark, accepting all his foibles, which he reads as a sign of romance. The way Mann plays her, though, with her big smile and little-girl voice, there’s more sweetness than excitement to their connection.
It’s rare to see Steve Carell give a performance with this kind of soft center. He makes Hogancamp a sentimental victim-oddball who basically implores people to love him. Mark is an easy character to cozy up to, even as he’s strolling along the desolate wintry roads of Kingston in high heels dragging a small wagon of dolls. But he’s also quite passive for a movie protagonist; almost all his actions are taken when he turns into his alter ego. Nicol has a seething ex-boyfriend named Kurt (Neil Jackson) who keeps showing up to harass her, and Mark re-imagines him as an SS officer he has to defeat. And so on. The documentary chronicled Hogancamp’s birth as an artist when he landed his first show of photographs at a gallery in Greenwich Village. “Welcome to Marwen” includes that same show, though it makes a small but crucial change: It presents Mark, from day one, as someone the locals regard as a gifted artist. (The drama is: Will he face his attackers in court on sentencing day?) Yet the added prestige just ends up taking away from him. His art had more danger before he, or anyone else, knew what it was.