Welcome to Marwen is loose biopic of artist and photographer Mark Hogancamp, a former Navy veteran and illustrator who was brutally beaten in a hate crime incident that resulted in serious damage to his motor functions and a near-total loss of his memories prior to the attack. As part of his recuperation, he began creating an elaborate, meticulously-detailed miniature city on his property, which he populated with dolls acting out a convoluted World War II-era adventure fantasy reflecting his psychological torment and ongoing recovery, which he then depicted through a series of impressively-lifelike photographs that later became gallery exhibitions and the subject of the popular documentary “Marwencol;” named for the fictional dollhouse-city where he continued to set his increasingly unusual wartime fantasy scenes.
This film version uses state of the art animation to bring the Marwencol fantasy sequences vividly to life (for actually a bit more of the running time than the trailers might lead you to suspect) while the live-action section features Steve Carrell as Hogancamp — which is right about where the trouble starts. Carrell is a good actor, absolutely, but like many other talented comedians who also work in drama (see: Carrey, Jim) he has a tendency to trip and stumble from “earnest” into “smarmy” very easily and here the rest of the movie doesn’t even give him a chance to do otherwise.
In the first of a series of bizarre decisions, the screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson attempts to replicate the late-reveal of “what really happened and why?” regarding Hogancamp’s assault from the documentary (he was attacked for casually admitting to being, in his words, “a cross-dresser,” though both the documentary and Hogancamp himself are fuzzy on the extent of his pre-brain damage immersion into the lifestyle) while also imposing a succession of unnecessary artificial ticking clocks to create a false sense of immediacy and generate a “survivor’s arc” even though for the Marwencol part of the storyline to begin he kind of already needs to have … you know, survived.
Specifically: Carrell’s Mark needs to overcome an addiction to painkillers and his own suicidal depression (both inventions of the film) in order to face down his attackers at their sentencing (thus ensuring that the attack’s status as a hate-crime carries a stiff penalty) and get up the courage to appear at a gallery exhibition of his photographs thus (by implication) beginning some kind of transition back to a less secluded life; with the current incarnations of his doll-city fantasies acting as exaggerated literalizations of his inner conflict. This especially pertains to establishing relationships, as “Marwen” (it would take too long to explain the name change) is populated by an army of amazonian lady-soldiers loyal to Hogancamp’s G.I. Joe doll alter-ego but also by Diane Kruger as a witch representing the personification of said painkiller addiction who exists to banish dolls based on women he develops actual feelings for from the Marwen universe.
And if you’re thinking “Well, that sounds like it MIGHT work played for subtlety and let the audience find the metaphor themselves …” no, it comes right out and says “This is what this is about” and never stops saying it. And if you’re now thinking “That sounds like the worst possible way to make this movie,” well — you’re obviously just the sort of spoilsport who thinks Born on The Fourth of July, The Accused, Sucker Punch and Small Soldiers weren’t meant to be mashed-up into one movie, so … jokes on you?
To be honest, just about every wrong decision one could make has been made in the production of Welcome to Marwen, from the tone to the editing to the story focus to the fact that the conceit of the various dolls representing specific women in Mark’s life never amounts to much because we end up meeting most of the real women maybe once. But if there’s one overriding thing wrong with this film it’s the fundamental misunderstanding of what made its subject compelling to so many people in the first place.
What’s continued to fascinate about Hogancamp’s photos is that the fact of them defies the pop-culture instinct to approach disabled persons like him as infantilized and asexual beings, fetishizing the way their vulnerability can serve to make the able-bodied feel useful to them and at ease in a way that might feel well meaning but actually denies them their agency. But the reality of Marwencol’s … “unreality” makes it impossible to really impose that on Hogancamp because the therapeutic fantasy he’s acting out there is so unapologetically, well … “raw.”
He’s very much not doing “feel good” rise-above-it stuff — Marwencol is a dark, violent, aggressively juvenile fantasy world where his stand-in is a king-shit badass surrounded by beautiful women who kills the hell out of those who wrong him but it’s WWII so they’re Nazis and it’s okay. And the fact that you can feel the anger at what happened and seething frustration (sexual and otherwise) at what his life is afterward coming out in these very NOT whimsical staged doll scenarios is legit fascinating, you can tell why they made a documentary out of it.
Welcome to Marwen, on the other hand, seems to want to be the whimsical, uplifting, “isn’t this guy and his funny doll town precious and quirky” thing that the real story wasn’t — and that’s really disappointing especially from a filmmaker like Zemeckis who used to be famous precisely for hitting the sweet-spot between bizarre and approachable. Sadly, this seems to be another case where technology was more interesting to him than narrative, as he lavishes much more attention on the details of the animated doll scenes than the story they’re supposed to be propelling.
That’s hurt a few of his projects of late, but it’s a late-in-the-game extended reference to one of his own movies (in the midst of what’s meant to be a dramatic payoff, no less — you’ll know when you see it coming) that leads one to sincerely consider that this might actually be a career worst. Meanwhile, between this and Vice, perhaps Carell could stand to back away from the Oscar Bait for awhile.