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It's a Nice Place to Visit

Steve Carell
Steve Carell
Universal Pictures
 116 Minutes
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann   
Welcome to Marwen

In one of Blake Edwards’ funnier and more perceptive movies, S.O.B., he skewered the film industry itself in a story about a struggling producer who comes up with one of the most bizarre ideas of all time for a musical. The film-within-a-film features Edwards’ real-life wife, Julie Andrews, playing an actress with a squeaky-clean image like Andrews herself. The musical winds up being a dark softcore porn fantasy, replete with dancers in bondage gear around whom a nymphomaniac Andrews parades, singing a creepy version of the old nursery rhyme, “Polly Wolly Doodle.” The finale features a partially nude Andrews glaring straight at the camera. I bring this movie up because the Andrews musical number in S.O.B. is the only scene I can recall in a mainstream film that was anything like the fantasies portrayed in Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen. Both are in horribly bad taste, but the difference is that Edwards intended his scene that way while Zemeckis intended his fantasy sequences as an uplifting example of a man triumphing over his disability.


Welcome to Marwen is based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp (played by Steve Carell), a talented artist who also happened to be a crossdresser, an activity that aroused the ire of a group of men in a bar one night. They beat Hogancamp severely, putting him in a coma for several days and wiping out his memories of his past life and his ability to draw. Fortunately, Hogancamp was able to turn his talents to photography and built in his backyard an elaborate miniature recreation of a World War II European village populated by 12-inch-tall dolls that he painstakingly posed and photographed in wartime tableaux. Over a considerable period, Hogancamp worked out some of his mental issues through the violence he depicted in his doll scenes. As a result, he was able to come to grips to an extent with the PTSD from which he suffered (his formal physical and therapy ended when his Medicaid funds ran out). In the process, Hogancamp created some excellent, albeit offbeat, images.


The story of Mark Hogancamp could have made an excellent movie, and, in fact, it did, a 2010 documentary called Marwencol. But, for some reason, Robert Zemeckis felt that Hogancamp’s story wasn’t cinematic enough, so he tinkered with it in Welcome to Marwen. Worse, he tinkered with it in a way that trivialized and mocked Hogancamp’s experience and crossed the line into utter tastelessness at times. Rather than have Steve Carell set up his combat dolls in a realistic fashion (Hogancamp’s creations were brutally violent with a good bit of blood and gore depicted), Zemeckis instead brings the dolls to life through a technique called photorealistic animation that he toyed with a decade earlier in films like Polar Express.


Zemeckis digitally superimposed animated versions of his actors’ faces onto doll bodies that he could then move around onscreen in a manner that’s a cross between full-fledged computer animation and stop motion. The result is the same not-quite-lifelike creepiness present in movies like Polar Express. Visually, the effect is stunning for the first five minutes or so, as in the opening scene of Welcome to Marwen. There, Hogancamp’s alter ego, a pilot he named Captain Hogie (in real life and in the film), crash lands near the village and is rescued from a group of German soldiers whose faces mimic the faces of Hogancamp’s actual attackers by a squad of female commandos. These women are doll representations of some of the women in Hogancamp’s life.


Much as the real Hogancamp relied on his dolls and their village for support, Zemeckis does too, returning to it over and over again throughout Welcome to Marwen. I would guess that nearly an hour of the movie is devoted to depictions of the dolls in increasingly elaborate combat scenarios, all taken fairly seriously. These battles are heavy on gunfire (each time the women open fire on the Germans, they blast away for a good minute or so), and end with the German dolls getting smashed to bits (and then magically reanimating in the next doll sequence). On the other hand, when Hogie’s women occasionally suffer fatal wounds, Hogancamp tosses their dolls in an R.I.P. coffin that he keeps in his living room.


It’s hard to take any of this seriously since the effect seems more like something out of the Puppet Master movies. In fact, at one point, Zemeckis even gives a shout out to his own classic, Back to the Future, by having a flying time-traveling car show up in one of the battle sequences. But the repeated emphasis on these elaborate doll interludes also simplifies Hogancamp’s actual struggles by turning them into an elementary schoolboy combat fantasy. Zemeckis also insultingly simplifies Hogancamp’s mental problems by creating another character, an evil Belgian witch doll (voiced by Diane Kruger), who shows up occasionally to kill off some of Hogie’s favorites. Of course, by defeating the doll in his mind, Hogancamp is miraculously “cured.”


Even when it stays in the real world as opposed to the doll world, Welcome to Marwen has problems. The real Hogancamp had issues relating to women (which was a reason for his cross-dressing fetish), but Zemeckis feels the need to give him not just one but two potential romantic interests. The movie Hogancamp falls for his new neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), who becomes the latest centerpiece for Captain Hogie’s adventures. Of course, she doesn’t share the same feelings for him, which is understandable, but her reactions whenever she is around him are a bit hard to believe. Mann never quite gets a handle on how to show sympathy and understanding in an increasingly weird situation (she walks in on him watching a porn movie in one scene) and winds up coming across as pretty much of a ditz.


The other significant woman in the fictional Hogancamp’s life is Roberta (Meritt Wever), the manager of the local hobby shop where Hogancamp buys many of his supplies. She clearly has a crush on him and is also incredibly understanding, but she’s also obviously as unrealistic as Captain Hogie’s dolls. Her only function in the film is to provide a fictional love interest for an inevitable happy ending. In fact, I had an eerie feeling at times that the actual humans in this movie were more plastic than the dolls were. Welcome to Marwen completely wastes the talents of Wever, Mann, and the other women who show up briefly, including Janelle Monae, Gwendoline Christie, and Eiza Gonzalez.


Sometimes, when talented people wind up making a bad movie, you get the feeling that somehow, for some reason, they never quite got right what they intended. Unfortunately, and sadly, I think that Welcome to Marwen turned out to be exactly the movie that Robert Zemeckis intended to make. He combined some striking computer-generated visuals with a storyline that whitewashes Mark Hogancamp’s tragic story and turns it into a Forrest Gump-ian feel-good fantasy with an increasingly ridiculous doll-driven subplot. The result is an insult to Hogancamp and others like him trying to cope with traumatic brain injuries. A gifted director like Robert Zemeckis and a talented actor like Steve Carell could easily have made a movie that dramatically and realistically depicted Hogancamp’s experience. Instead, Welcome to Marwen is a tasteless mess. There’s nothing at all welcoming about this movie.

In this clip, Steve Carell has a panic attack in the courthouse.

Read other reviews of Welcome to Marwen: 

Welcome to Marwen (2018) on IMDb