×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Welcome to Marwen’

Steve Carell plays a trauma victim who builds and enters an imaginary landscape of World War II action figures in Robert Zemeckis' elaborate dramatization of a 2010 documentary. But the documentary was better.

Director:
Robert Zemeckis
With:
Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Merritt Wever, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Neil Jackson, Matt O’Leary, Falk Hentschel, Stefanie von Pfetten, Siobhan Williams.
Release Date:
Dec 21, 2018

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3289724/

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.

Film Review: 'Welcome to Marwen'

Reviewed at AMC 34th St., New York, Dec. 18, 2018. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 116 MIN.

Production: A Universal Pictures release of a Universal Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, ImageMovers production. Producers: Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Cherylanne Martin. Executive producers: Jacqueline Levine, Derek Hogue.

Crew: Director: Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay: Caroline Thompson, Robert Zemeckis. Camera (color, widescreen): C. Kim Miles. Editor: Jeremiah O’Driscoll. Music: Alan Silvestri.

With: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Merritt Wever, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Neil Jackson, Matt O’Leary, Falk Hentschel, Stefanie von Pfetten, Siobhan Williams.

More Film

  • PLAYA VISTA, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 24:

    Shorts Encourage Women to STEAM Careers

    Straight Up Films created the anthology “Power/On” of five shorts focused on encouraging girls in STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math with the arts thrown in) directed by actresses Rosario Dawson, Julie Bowen, Ana Brenda Contreras, Lisa Edelstein, and Nikki Reed. With support from YouTube, the shorts premiered Wednesday at the Google campus in Playa [...]

  • Stefanie Sherk obit

    Stefanie Sherk, Actress and Wife to Demian Bichir, Dies at 43

    Canadian actress and model Stefanie Sherk died on April 20 of an apparent suicide by drowning. She was 43. The Los Angeles Medical Examiner-Coroner confirmed the ruling and cause of death. Sherk appeared in the TV show “CSI: Cyber” and the movie “Valentine’s Day.” She also starred in the show “The Bridge” alongside her husband [...]

  • Ron HowardBreakthrough Prize, Arrivals, NASA Ames

    Ron Howard Talks New Luciano Pavarotti Documentary

    If one is an anomaly, two are a coincidence and three are a trend, then Ron Howard might strictly become a music documentarian after “Pavarotti” hits theaters. The documentary about the world-famous Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti comes on the heels of Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” and “Made in America,” a look at [...]

  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead

    Mary Elizabeth Winstead to Star in Netflix Assassin Thriller 'Kate' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mary Elizabeth Winstead is set to star in the Netflix actioner “Kate,” sources tell Variety. “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is helming from a script by Umair Aleem. The story revolves around a female assassin, who, after being poisoned and given less than 24 hours to live, must go on a manhunt through [...]

  • Shannon Hoon

    Blind Melon Frontman's Home Movies Captivate in Tribeca Doc 'All I Can Say'

    For a period of five years, Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon diligently chronicled his own life, videotaping himself with a Hi-8 video camera through every step of his musical journey — starting out in Indiana, through his meteoric rise to alt-rock icon, up to the day of his death in 1995. These captivating moments finally [...]

  • 'The Edge of Democracy' Review: A

    Film Review: 'The Edge of Democracy'

    How the hell did we get here? It’s a question that political liberals are asking themselves in many parts of the world, reeling as they are from a global tilt to the right that has yielded the tumultuous Trump presidency, the ceaseless, squabbling chaos of Brexit and, albeit less prominently in international headlines, Brazil’s submission [...]

  • Brie Larson

    Brie Larson on Diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: 'We Gotta Move Faster'

    While Brie Larson is thrilled over the success of the female-led “Captain Marvel,” the actress wants more diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Larson sat down with Variety’s Marc Malkin for the first episode of Variety and iHeartMedia’s new film podcast, “The Big Ticket.” “I’m happy to be on the forefront of the normalization of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content