After fighting his way back from a physically devastating hate attack, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) turns to art therapy, creating a mythical Belgian town peopled with dolls representing his WWII counterpart, heroic fighter pilot Captain Hogie, who he surrounds with a cadre of strong and sexy women in "Welcome to Marwen."
Cowriter (with Caroline Thompson)/director Robert Zemeckis has long evinced a fascination for cinematic technology with movies like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Death Becomes Her," "The Walk" and the creepy hyperreality of "The Polar Express." His latest, an adaptation of Jeff Malmberg's sublime 2010 documentary "Marwencol," seems to exist mainly to show off a new mode of special effect, one which accentuates socket jointed dolls with real eyes and mouths, like a high tech, motion smoothed, live action 'Clutch Cargo.' Meanwhile Hogancamp's story has been turned into a weird hybrid of quirky romcom and inspirational trauma survival which rarely sparks to life.
The film is leadenly literal, Mark's world 'shaken up' when the dolls he's photographing on his front lawn are knocked over by the rumbling vibration of the moving van which deposits new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) across the street. Nicol is pure movie invention, a pert red head with a liking for floral skirt ensembles and high heeled pumps, the latter Mark's not-so-secret obsession which resulted in the beating that stole his memory and almost took his life (the film opens with one of Mark's Marwen adventures, Captain Hogie donning a pair of women's heels when his boots are burned in a crash landing). Nicol is also a veterinary aide and animal shelter volunteer who has been able to purchase a house with dreams of building a tea room in her backyard. She finds nothing strange at all about her skittish neighbor who tramps down the road pulling a toy jeep full of dolls while wearing women's heels because it just so happens her own brother collects heels and lingerie. How convenient.
Mark's fictional town is a circular assemblage of doll sized buildings formed around a plaza with a fountain (the real Marwencol is actually far more elaborate). Every other occupant is female, all based on women in Mark's life. The pig-tailed Wendy (Stefanie von Pfetten) was the 'love of his life,' the bartender at the Avalanche Road House who found him unconscious on the street. Anna (Gwendoline Christie) is his Russian home care aide, a Soviet fighter in Marwen. GI Julie (Janelle Monáe) was Mark's physical therapist, Caralala (Eiza González) his Latina Avalanche coworker, Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis) his favorite soft core porn star. Roberta (Merritt Wever) works at the local hobby shop where Mark buys his supplies who has been gently trying to draw him out into a social life, but it is Nicol Mark begins to woo as he weaves her into Hoagie's story, one which imagines his attackers as Nazi soldiers. Nicol has also arrived with her own villain, a stalker ex, Kurt (Neil Jackson), who shows up in Nazi doll form in Roberta's shop.
There is one doll who flits between Marwen and her own perch in Mark's home. As if her jade green hair and elbow length gloves weren't a tip-off, Zemeckis must show us that Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) doesn't represent a person, but the big jade green pills Mark relies on too heavily. Deja is green with envy over Mark's interest in Nicol (rightfully so, as it is Nicol's name that is added to Mark's and Wendy's when Hogancamp renames his town).
And so the film plods through to its rightful conclusion, Mark's obstacles his recognition of the love right in front of him, his addiction and his paralyzing fears of his upcoming art show and appearance in court with his attackers. Carell has delivered some fine dramatic performances over the years, including his Oscar nominated turn in "Foxcatcher" and last year's grieving dad in "Last Flag Flying," but he's been playing so many socially awkward sad sacks his film career is in danger of following Robin Williams's. With the exception of Merritt Wever, no one in this film resembles a real person.
I had feared "Welcome to Marwen" would be in bad taste, exploiting its subject. Instead Hollywood has just dumbed it down. The documentary is far and away the more worthwhile investment of your time.
Robin did not see this film.
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